Back in the Chris Farley era of Saturday Night Live, the late comedian starred in a spoof commercial for a cold medicine called HiberNol - something that knocked you out for multiple seasons. Colds would come and go and you would be none the wiser since you had slept for months at a time. We have reached the time of the season where some fans wish they had their own HiberNol - the bye week. It like the visiting in-laws. You can’t stop it, you just have to endure it and do what you can to see it through to the end.
While the Avalanche some much needed time off to rest and recoup after limping into the All-Star break, now is as good a time as any to look ahead at the remaining schedule. To see what the team has in front of them as they attempt to capture their second straight playoff birth.
Heading into the bye week the Avs hold onto the second wild card spot, but as we have seen moving up the standings can happen as quickly as moving down them. All games are important but certain match-ups will no doubt have more riding on the outcome than others.
When the Avalanche return from their time off they will have two straight home games and with the three they had prior to the All-Star break that makes five straight at the Pepsi Center. Home ice is typically good to the Avs but this current home stand (and most of the month of January) has not gone the way the Avs had hoped. After blowing out the Los Angeles Kings 7-1 they lost the next two to Nashville and Minnesota. If the Avs want to end this home stand with a winning record they will have to beat two tough teams in Vancouver and Columbus. Nothing says hit the ice skating like facing the team that is directly below them in the standings which is what the Avs get in facing the Canucks. The two teams are tied in points but the Avs have a game in hand. Separating themselves from the team that is fighting them for that last spot will always give you a momentary sigh of relief.
On February 7th the Avalanche head east for a quick three games in a four days stretch against difficult opponents. Washington (2/7), NY Islanders (2/9) and Boston (2/10) are all teams currently holding playoff spots and with the Avs facing them in rapid succession the team’s stamina and conditioning will be tested. The good news is once this three game road trip concludes the Avs play no more than two consecutive games away from the Pepsi Center. In fact, with the games remaining the Avs will play 18 at home compared to 14 on the road.
With the exception of Winnipeg and Nashville, who will likely be battling for the top of the Central Division, everyone else is still in the mix to compete for the last division spot, even Chicago - who has seen their play improve significantly following a couple of key roster moves.
It would be a mistake for the Avalanche and their fans to focus solely on the wild card positions. However, this is where it could prove difficult.
Of the remaining 32 games, 12 are against division rivals and only four of those games played at home. With the Avalanche struggling to maintain consistency on the road this year, victories here will prove to be the biggest challenge for the remainder of the season.
There are stretches where the Avalanche will face their division rivals in bunches. For ten days starting on February 14th, the Avalanche play five of six games against central division opponents and from March 19th through April 1st they will play five of seven games against the Central, including four in a row. It goes without saying these are games the Avs must come away with points - a lot of them.
Another area in which the Avs will be challenged is the scheduled back to back games. Nobody likes suiting up the day after a game but every team does it and every team has to deal with it. For the Avalanche they will see back to back games on four separate occasions.
The downside here is only two of these games will be played at home. On the upcoming three game east coast road trip the Avs will play the last two games back to back. On February 22nd and 23rd the Avs will see another road back to back against the Blackhawks and Predators, respectively.
A month later the Avs will have two more games against the Blackhawks in a home and home and the final back to back comes at the start of April with games in St. Louis then home against Edmonton.
The most exciting moment from last year was unquestionably the final game of the season. The scheduling gods must have looked into their crystal ball and known the Blues and Avalanche would be competing for the final spot and placed them against each other in a winner take all match-up.
With the bonus of hosting the game Avalanche fans were given the benefit to see firsthand the team roll to victory was a moment that won’t soon be forgotten.
What could beat that last empty net goal by Gabriel Landeskog and the game of pile on that ensued?
This year, however, if a playoff spot comes down to the final game it won’t be against a division rival and it won’t be in front of the home crowd. The Avalanche will conclude their season against San Jose in California and if the Sharks continue their pace they might not have much to play for in the last game of their season. Take nothing for granted and we have some time before we reach the end of the road, but that could be a real benefit for the Avs.
Last season the Avs played 34 games after the All-Star break (oddly enough the first game back was against Vancouver also) and the Avs went 16-18 to finish out a season that totaled 95 points. They finished fourth in the division and captured the final wild card spot in the playoffs. This year they have 32 games left after the break and let’s assume they play .500 hockey (maybe not such a safe assumption at this point). That would bring their record to 38-36-8 and give them 84 points on the season. I don’t know about you but that total doesn’t make me feel comfortable.
Eighteen of the remaining games are against teams already holding a playoff position (this includes the two games vs Vancouver who, again, is tied with Colorado) as well as games against teams making a push for the Western Conference Wild Card spots (Anaheim twice).
Simply put, the Avalanche need to start stringing wins together and piling up points. No NHL game is ever a gimme and the opponents in the remaining schedule are tough but if the Avs want to take the next step and get to the next level they need to start beating the teams they are superior too. Losses to teams like Ottawa simply should not and cannot happen.
One thing is for sure, the build up to the end of the season and watching teams battle for those precious playoff spots is exhilarating year after year. If the Avalanche fall short, it would be tough, but at least we’re in for some exciting hockey over the next two months.
Though, if the Avs miss out on the postseason we all might be looking for some HiberNol until the draft at the end of June.