Welcome to first place, Colorado Avalanche fans.
Thanks to the tie-breaking system (and different time zones), the Avalanche actually moved into first just before stepping on the ice last night. Before the puck dropped in Denver, the Calgary Flames lost in regulation to the Thrashers two time zones ahead, pushing the Avs into first place. Colorado needed to earn points to stay in first though; with the Wild going to a shootout, a regulation loss would have moved the Avs from 1st to 3rd.
That just wasn't going to happen, though. The Avalanche came out hard at the opening gun and didn't let up until the game was firmly in control. Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny and Jaroslav Hlinka took the opening faceoff and immediately started to pressure Mathieu Garon and a weak Edmonton defense. While they didn't score - Hlinka had a good chance but missed the net - they set the tone early. Edmonton showed some early hunger as well (a win would have moved them to within 5 points of the final playoff spot), but the Oiler defense just couldn't keep from wilting against some heavy offensive pressure.
The Avalanche didn't get onto the board until the 18:52 mark of the first period, when Hlinka made a terrific pass in traffic to Jeff Finger sneaking in from the point. Finger slammed home his 7th goal (tops among our blueliners), and it seemed like Edmonton just quit after that. The Avs had two more great chances before the period would end (Finger almost notched a second, but wound up hitting the post). Just 18 seconds into the 2nd, Hlinka intercepted a horrible clearing pass by Ladislav Smid; with room to work, he had no trouble beating Garon for his first goal since Feb 17. Just over 3 minutes later, Tyler Arnason converted a terrific cross-ice pass from Joe Sakic into a powerplay goal - his 2nd of the year to give the Avalanche a 3-0 lead and a hook for Garon (the 2nd straight game where we've knocked out a goalie early).
After the goalie change, the Oilers seemed to pick up the pace a little bit, and when Sam Gagner - a great looking rookie - pushed an Ales Hemskey rebound past Peter Budaj, there was just the slightest tingle of anxiety building up in my nervous system. That was all that Edmonton would manage, though. David Jones followed up his career night in Atlanta Tuesday with a powerplay goal at the 14:36 mark of the 2nd. Jones, with just 12:39 of PP ice time this year, had not been on the ice all year when a PP goal was scored; he was on the ice for both PP goals last night. Finally, Wojtek Wolski (remember him?) took advantage of a inattentive Edmonton defense, splitting Tom Gilbert and Denis Grebeshkov to score a pretty breakaway goal on Dwayne Roloson. That capped the scoring off at 5-1. The Avs finished the game where they started the game - atop the Northwest division.
It would be tough to imagine a better night for the Avalanche. All four NW teams played last night, and all 4 teams lost as did the 9th-place Predators. The Wild did gain one point after taking the Devils to a shootout; that one point is the only blemish on an otherwise perfect night for Avalanche fans.
It was also a pretty good night for some of the less-established Avalanche players. Wolski, Jones and Hlinka have been scratched a combined 24 times this season and all 3 had big games (Hlinka was named the first star, Jones the 3rd). Hlinka has been playing great with Stastny and Hejduk (by the way, has anyone else noticed that Hejduk has been excellent defensively in the last few games?). Wolski, relegated to the 4th line, laid out Smid with a big hit on his first shift of the game. And Jones has been a one-man wrecking crew lately. With Peter Forsberg and Ryan Smyth due back in the lineup any day now, these guys all face getting moved from their lines or even shuffled to the press box. Forsberg and Smyth have some big skates to fill...
Lines are listed here. There were only two changes - Wojtek Wolski replaced Scott Parker (injured in the Atlanta game) on the 4th line, and Ruslan Salei returned (sporting one hell of a shiner) after missing a game. He replaced the injured Adam Foote. Since the Avalanche sent Jeff Jillson back to Cleveland, I'm assuming that either Foote or Jordan Leopold - or both - will be playing on Saturday.
For those looking for updated line/shift charts: my home computer has been caught up in Avalanche Injury Fever™ and has suffered what looks to be a career-ending injury. At the very least, it's going to be on the shelf for some time. I do have plans in the works to max out my credit card on a new rig (stock tip: might be a good time to invest in Newegg), but it's going to be a while before I get everything back up and running.
- To go along with his scoring, David Jones has been a hitting machine. He has 9 hits in the last two games. The rest of the team? 12.
- If I'm reading the right scribbled-on post-it note, the Avalanche improved to 17-8-4 in games where they've won the faceoff battle.
- Ruslan Salei has 7 penalties in his 7 games with the team.
The Avs are currently in 1st place in the NW, giving them the 3rd seed in the Western Conference. All other divisional opponents have a game in hand on the Avs.
- (3) Colorado, 84 pts, 10 games left
- (6) Minnesota, 82 pts, 11 games left
- (7) Calgary, 82 pts, 11 games left
- (8) Vancouver, 80 pts, 11 games left
- (9) Nashville, 78 pts, 10 games left
- (10) Phoenix, 77 pts, 11 games left
All teams on this list are idle tonight (Friday). In fact, San Jose is the only Western Conference team in the top 10 in action this evening (they host the Blues).
On Saturday, it's game on again. The Avalanche host the Devils (currently the top team in the East). Minnesota hosts the Kings. Vancouver will be in Dallas. Phoenix hosts Edmonton and Nashville will be in Detroit. Calgary is idle (they play Chicago on Sunday).