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No Wheels Required: The Avs Are Still Contenders

The Colorado Avalanche had the best October of the team's history, going 10-2-2 to start this season.  The good luck continued for a few more games, and after seventeen, the Avs' record was 12-3-2.  Then, depending on how you look at it, the wheels fell off, as the Avs managed a sub-par, 5-6-3 November.  But 5-6-3 isn't terrible, considering the Carolina Hurricanes went 2-10-2 during the same month.  Things could have been worse.

Still, 5-6-3 is a long way from 10-2-2.  Criticism was warranted.  The good thing about starting the year so well is that the inevitable cooling-off period wasn't so damaging to the overall record.  At the end of November, the Avs were still in second place in the Northwest Division, just two points behind Calgary and locked into a playoff spot. 

Now, five games later, the Avs are tied for first place and face the Flames in their next game.  The winner will take the division lead.  So even if the team had hit a wall (and with so many injuries, their performance is still very impressive), they've recovered sufficiently to stay in contention.

What's been key for the Avs is their point production.  Colorado has collected at least a point seven times in their last ten games.  They've been pretty bad in OT and the shootout overall, but with the NHL still clinging to the charity point system, the Avs are staying put near the top of the conference standings by dragging games beyond regulation.

Another saving grace for the Avs was the solid play of Peter Budaj.  In the four games he started in December, he didn't have a single bad showing.  His save percentage was .940 or better and he managed a shutout.  Craig Anderson has cooled off and the Avs' defense has struggled at times, but Budaj came through when Colorado needed it, proving once again that he's a solid backup goaltender.

After 34 games, the Avs have scored 100 goals.  That's fifth-best in the NHL, and third-best in the West.  They're currently on pace to score 241 goals this season, which would be a 51-goal improvement over their poor 2008-09 showing.  Granted, they've only scored seven more goals than at the same point last season, but hopefully they'll avoid the second-half collapse the team endured last year.

Player-wise, the Avs are a mixed bag.  David Jones was on fire but got hurt and will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.  Luckily, Chris Stewart has finally stepped up, scoring 12 points in his last ten games.  As surprise stand-out Ryan O'Reilly has cooled off, slow-to-get-going rookie phenom Matt Duchene has heated up.  Paul Stastny suffered a temporary drought but is again contributing to the offense and ranks near the top in the league in scoring.  Wojtek Wolski has scored at least one point in 15 of his last 18 games. 

Defensively, Kyle Quincey has lost his dominant edge, but Scott Hannan has played very well.  Brett Clark is a puck-blocking but generally immobile pylon, while rookie Ryan Wilson is a solid +7 and continues to play well.  The rest of the blue line is hit-or-miss, depending on the night, but generally nobody has been awful.  Just like the offense, the performances vary.

Overall, the Avs have cooled but are still contending.  They're a top-tier team in the Western Conference and have a strong chance to win in every game.  If an 18-10-6 record after 34 games (by a team predicted to be in dead last) still qualifies as the wheels being off, we'll take it.