The Colorado Avalanche have now completed the longest road trip in team history (they start another road swing next Tuesday against Edmonton). Despite thousands of miles traveled and very low expectations, the rambunctious band of rookies and youngsters kept their composure and played extremely well. They lost in regulation only once. They scored ten points out of a possible fourteen. They took and held first place in the Western Conference.
To overstate the success of this road trip is pretty impossible. Despite seven straight games on the road, a team composed primarily of players under the age of 25 managed to take and hold the top spot in a very competitive conference. They also beat a bitter long-time rival as an added bonus. 4-1-2 is a good record for any seven-game stretch, let alone an extended road trip---the first for many of the Avalanche players.
Three players set themselves apart as true revelations during this road trip. Craig Anderson is establishing himself as the biggest catch of the summer's free agency market, and also as perhaps the best value between the pipes in the league. The Avs are spending just $1.5 million this season for a goalie with a 2.06 GAA (fifth in the NHL), .934 Save Percentage (fourth), and an overall record of 6-1-2 (fourth in wins). Consider what the other best-performing netminders in the league are pulling down: Bryzgalov - $4.25M, Miller - $6.25M, Fleury - $5M, Lundqvist - $6.9M. Only Ty Conklin ($1.3M) is producing similar stats to Anderson at such a cheap price.
The second big revelation on the Avalanche is defenseman Kyle Quincey. After nine games, he is tied for the team lead in points (8) with Wojtek Wolski. He scored six of those points, including a goal and an assist last night in Minnesota, while on the road trip. Despite his relatively average size for a defender (6-2, 205), he's the most physically dominant d-man on the team. And he can shoot from the point, too. He's played an average of about 25 minutes per game on the road trip and has cemented his place in the top blue line pairing.
The final big revelation is rookie Ryan O'Reilly. Despite being overshadowed by Matt Duchene, O'Reilly has been more consistent offensively than his fellow 2009 draft pick. He's third on the team in points (tied with Hejduk at 7), six of which he scored on the road trip. He's currently cruising on a five-game scoring streak and managed the game-winning goal against the Canadiens on October 15th. He's also been given a permanent spot on the Avalanche roster at just 18 years old.
Colorado scored a major coup with this road trip. For a team expected to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference for the second straight season, a 4-1-2 road trip at the start of the season is huge. Their 14 overall points---still first in the Western Conference---will prove extremely valuable as the season drags on. Poor teams like Minnesota and Nashville are already deep in the hole and may never catch up.
In the game thread last night and David's recap this morning, there is a palpable sense of disappointment about the loss to the Minnesota Wild. But let's keep perspective. The Avs still scored a point in the standings. They still had an incredibly successful road trip, despite its grueling length. They still lead the Western Conference after 9 games. That's huge. This is a team nobody expected to beat anybody, and still nobody expects them to keep up the pace at which they've been winning so far. Somehow, this fresh-faced band of kids (and a couple old grandpas) is defying the odds and winning games.
I expect the Avalanche will cool off. I expect they will start losing more often and settle lower in the standings. I expect that they'll be fighting for a playoff spot by April. On paper, nothing suggests otherwise. But as long as they're exceeding those expectations, as they are right now, I'll stay optimistic and remember that it could always be much, much worse.
Tony Granato could be behind the bench.