The Colorado Avalanche beat the Washington Capitals 5-1 on Saturday night, a win that improved their record to a perfect 5-0-0 and tied them for first overall in the NHL standings. It’s a massive change from the situation last year, when Colorado finished 29th in the NHL and ended up drafting Nathan MacKinnon first overall.
What’s going on, exactly?
Some of what’s going right for Colorado is going just too right to continue. That starts in net. A year ago, Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere combined for a 0.904 save percentage. So far this year, the duo has a combined for a 0.977 save percentage.
To put it in perspective, if Colorado's goalies had managed those numbers last season, the Avs would have gone from minus-36 as a team to plus-70—over just 48 games! It’s a lot easier to score more goals than the opposition when the goaltending is near-perfect.
If the team has taken a big step beyond goaltending, it should be visible in its shot metrics. A year ago, the Avalanche were just a hair worse than their opposition at generating shots five-on-five. This year, they’re just a touch better.
That’s actually more impressive than it sounds.
Teams typically shoot more when they’re trailing, and Colorado spent a lot of time trailing last year. If we just look at what happens when the score is close, we see a significant jump in the early going, albeit not one that moves the Avs near the top of the league.
What about special teams?
If anything, the situation looks worse than last year, at least based on the shots data. A year ago, the Avalanche outshot the opposition by a rate of 46-to-8 in an average hour of five-on-four time. This year, that’s down to 44-to-8. In an average hour of four-on-five penalty killing, last year the Avs surrendered 43 more shots per hour than they took. This year, that total is up to 48.
It’s early enough that the trends could still shift significantly, but right now the shot data suggests that Colorado’s special teams are worse than they were a year ago.
If the shot data is right and Colorado is a little better five-on-five and a little worse on special teams, does that mean the franchise is doomed to repeat last year’s miserable campaign? Not at all, for a few different reasons.
Last year, Colorado got lousy goaltending from Varlamov. The team’s starter has a career save percentage of 0.914; his 0.903 run in 2012-13 was his worst-ever NHL campaign. So far this year, he’s been brilliant, but even at his career-average level of play he’ll be significantly better than last season.
Secondly, Colorado struggled to score on the shots they got five-on-five last season. In the three seasons prior to 2012-13, they scored on 8.2 percent of their shots on average, which is also the rate they are scoring at this season.
But 2012-13 saw nearly a full percentage drop, down to 7.3 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but if the Avs had fired at 8.2 percent last year, they would have scored 10 more goals than they did; that’s enough to have a significant impact on the standings, especially over a 48-game campaign.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that Patrick Roy is a rookie NHL head coach and that he hasn’t had a long time with his new team. It’s going to take time to see his effect on the squad, time for him to institute his systems and get a feel for the roster.
It seems reasonable to think that as he—and the rest of this young team—gains experience, the team will take further strides, and those shot numbers will improve more dramatically.
For now, though, the exceptional work of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere is the single-biggest reason Colorado is winning so many games.