Funny thing about hockey, sometimes all that matters is a few centimeters. The Avalanche are frustratingly aware of that after losing to the Edmonton Oilers last night 3-2. From start to finish, the Avs' new offensive attack was skating circles around their opponents, peppering Oilers goalie Mathieu Garon with shots left and right and generally outplaying them altogether. But ultimately they were beaten by the goal posts and a last-second defensive lapse.
The Avs outshot the Oilers 33-19, increasing their shots-on-goal total for the first two games of the season to 72. That's good. Unfortunately, in both games they've faced amazing goaltending, first by Tim Thomas of the Bruins and then last night by Garon. The Avs also faced the goal posts, beating Garon four separate times just to watch the puck clang harmlessly out of the way. Centimeters to the left or right and the score would have been 6-3.
Colorado beat the Oilers in other categories, too. The Avs had 16 hits to 15. They only had 13 giveaways to Edmonton's 21. And in the faceoff circle, the Avalanche absolutely dominated. Joe Sakic was 15-19, Paul Stastny was 14-22 and the team as a whole went 36-50 (72%). Tyler Arnason took only two draws but won them both.
Sadly, dominance in every other aspect of the game didn't make the Avs dominant on the scoreboard. In the third period, with the score tied 1-1, Dustin Penner came from around the back of the net and stuffed one past Peter Budaj to make it 2-1 Oilers. Then at the halfway mark, an Edmonton defenseman flopped on the puck in the crease, giving the Avalanche a penalty shot. Coach Tony Granato wisely chose Milan Hejduk to take it, and The Duke delivered with a nice wrister to beat Garon just above his left blocker (it looked five-hole but wasn't).
With the score 2-2 and the clock running out, the Avs gave up their offensive advantage and fell back into their own zone. The Oilers cycled extremely well and set themselves up nicely for a last-second goal. Sure enough, a big shot from the point careened off an untouched Penner, who was expertly screening Budaj without a single Avalanche defenseman doing anything to stop him. For the second game in a row, the Avs gave up a last-minute goal to lose by just one.
Undoubtedly, fans frustrated by two consecutive losses to open the season will look for a single person to blame, and of course that person will be new starting goalie Peter Budaj. After all, he hasn't exactly been great. He stopped just 16 of 19 shots last night and gave up a second consecutive last-minute game-winner. But it would be unfair not to also cite the continuing unwillingness (or inability) of the Avalanche defense to get physical down low, to push the screeners out of the way. Budaj has only really been beaten face-to-face two or three times so far this year. The rest of the goals have come from screens and tip-ins that he can't be held solely responsible for.
That said, it's Budaj's job to keep pucks out of the net, and even if he doesn't do it very often, he's got to do it more often than the opposing netminder. He hasn't done that so far. There's no doubt that Budaj---ever a perfectionist and serious about performing well---is frustrated right now. And there's no doubt that Coach Granato has had a few choice words for his defensemen.
In general, despite starting the year at 0-2-0, the Avs are on the right track. They are controlling the puck and are absolutely dominating the ice when on the attack. It's a complete 180 compared to last season. If the opposing goalie isn't having the best (or the luckiest) game of his life, the Avs win the game easily.
Budaj needs to tighten up, and so does the defense. The Avs offense needs to change pretty much nothing. The wins will come. We'll just have to wait a little longer for them.