They finished 29th in the NHL last season thanks to a second half collapse, but today they’re tied for first in the Western Conference with the Red Wings.
The Colorado Avalanche skate into the Bell Centre Saturday to play their fourth game in six days on a five-game road trip. After losing their home opener to the Red Wings, they’ve rattled off road victories in Boston, Columbus and Ottawa. If they beat the Canadiens on Saturday to go 4-0 on the road, it will be the first time they’ve started a season in that fashion that since Oct. 1985, when the Nordiques won their first four road games of the season.
The Avs are young, they are fast up front, they like their big rebuilt defence corps and they believe with ex-Capital Semyon Varlamov they once again have top-flight goaltending.
The Avs have done well on this early season eastern swing in each of the last two seasons. Two years ago, they went 4-1-2 on an October trip that included a 3-2 win in Montreal, their last visit here. “Two years ago, we were the best team in the NHL after that trip,” Avs defenseman Kyle Quincey said last Sunday before the team left Denver. “The guys that were here, we’re looking forward to repeating that. We have a lot of good memories of that, and we’re looking forward to bonding with the new guys and becoming a family — because that’s how you win.” Seems to be working.
Last year, they went 3-2 on the eastern trip, but didn’t come to Montreal. They faced the Habs in Denver, beating them 3-2 in December.
The Avs got porous goaltending went they went in free fall last season, finishing the season allowing 3.5 goals against a game, worst in the NHL They gave up on Craig Anderson, dealing him to the Sens before the trade deadline (and they victimized Anderson on Thursday for seven goals on 39 shots). With Varlamov and J.S. Gigeure (who faced Ottawa) this season, they have allowed only six goals in four games. Varlamov is expected to play on Saturday. He has a .960 save percentage, second only to Dallas’s Kari Lehtonen’s .933 among goalies who have played three or more games, and a 1.30 GAA, tied with Lehtonen for the league lead in that category. He’s is 3-0-1 with a 1.45 GAA versus Montreal in his career.
Some of the Avs’ decline in goals against this season is attributed to a defence corps that is bigger than the small, mobile crew the Avs had manning the blue line in the past. Jan Hejda, Shane O’Brien, Erik Johnson and Ryan O’Byrne were playing elsewhere on opening night a year ago — O’Byrne with the Habs. They average 6-foot-4, 233 pounds. Quincey at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds and Ryan Wilson at 6-foot-1, 207 pounds round out the top six. They also have ex-Bruin Matt Hunwick on their roster. He’s the small guy, listed at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds. They’ll provide a challenge for the Habs forwards going to the net.
“We have some size, some grit and some sandpaper back there right now, and it’s going to be a lot tougher to play against us,” said O’Byrne.
Up front, free agent signee Joakim Lindstrom has replaced Peter Meuller on the first line with Matt Duchene and Milan Heduk. Meuller seemed fine in training camp and in the first couple of games, but he’s apparently had a recurrence of the concussion symptoms that kept him out of the lineup all of last season. Lindstrom scored twice against Ottawa.
The line of rookie left wing Gabriel Landeskog, centre Ryan O’Reilly and right wing Daniel Winnik combined for two goals and four assists against the Sens and has been a surprise factor for the Avs in the early going. Landeskog, the second overall pick in June, has goals in two consecutive games and leads the club with 16 shots on goal. The three also see duty on the penalty kill and Winnik has a shorthanded goal.
Johnson, the first overall pick in 2006 who came from St. Louis via trade last February, quarterbacks the power play. Colorado started the season 0-for-11 on power plays in the first three games, but the Avalanche went 4-for-6 against Ottawa. They killed three of four Ottawa power plays and have allowed only one power play goal in 13 penalties so far, 92.9 percent, sixth best in the league.
Here’s how they will probably line up on Saturday against the Habs:
Joakim Lindstrom-Matt Duchene-Milan Hejduk
David Jones-Paul Stastny-Chuck Kobasew
Gabriel Landeskog-Ryan O’Reilly-Daniel Winnik
Cody McLeod-Jay McClement-TJ Galiardi
Jan Hejda-Erik Johnson
Shane O’Brien-Kyle Quincey
Ryan Wilson-Ryan O’Byrne