Why the Colorado Avalanche's Hot Start Is a Fluke

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Why the Colorado Avalanche's Hot Start Is a Fluke
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Jean-Sebastien Giguere has two shutouts in three starts this season. Can he maintain that level of play throughout the season?

The Colorado Avalanche are one of the most surprising and positive stories of the NHL season’s first month. They are 8-1-0 under new coach Patrick Roy, whose club leads the Central Division and trails only the San Jose Sharks by one point in the overall standings.

It’s been a phenomenal stretch for the Avalanche, who have outscored opponents 28-12 and are 5-0 on the road. But based on their numbers in 2013-14—especially the goaltending numbers—there's almost zero chance this hot start is for real.

The Avalanche have a team save percentage of .961, the type of numbers you would post while playing a video game on the beginner level.

Starter Semyon Varlamov is 5-1-0 with a .950 save percentage and is finally looking like the goaltender the Avalanche felt was worthy of a first- and second-round draft pick when they acquired him from the Washington Capitals in 2011. 

The only thing more unexpected than Varlamov’s dominance has been the performance of 36-year-old backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere. He is 3-0-0 with two shutouts and a .981 save percentage.

Amazingly, the only two goals he has allowed this season were against the Buffalo Sabres, who have zero regulation/OT wins and are averaging 1.20 goals per game.

Whether you’re a proponent of hockey’s advanced, fancy statistics or you prefer to let your eyes and gut tell you how to feel about things, there’s just no way you can expect Varlamov and Giguere to continue at this pace when they are facing an average of 33.8 shots per game.

Perhaps the best case against the Avalanche running away with the Presidents’ Trophy lies in their nine-game PDO, an abnormally high 1067 based largely on that .961 save percentage.

PDO tabulates a team’s save percentage and shooting percentage, and teams that are far above 1000 should regress while teams that are well below 1000 should improve.

So, how high is a PDO of 1067? In the past three 82-game seasons, the league leaders had an average PDO of about 1020.

Over the past three seasons, the Avalanche’s PDO was consistently in the 980s as they failed to reach the postseason. The makeup of this year’s team isn’t much different than the one that finished 29th in the standings last year, so it’s a logical leap to think this team is playing way over its head.

Nathan MacKinnon is good, but he’s not that good.

PDO aside, an outstanding nine-game stretch is quite common for even the worst of teams during an 82-game season.

The 2011-12 Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers had 7-2-0 runs early that season and finished 28th and 29th in the league, respectively. That season’s Minnesota Wild team became PDO poster boys after jumping to a 20-7-3 start before crashing back to earth with a 15-29-8 record over their final 52 games.

The 2010-11 Avalanche had a 6-1-2 stretch in December but stumbled to 69 points and a 29th-place finish. 

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PDO isn’t a foolproof way to predict a team’s performance, but it’s a strong indicator of which teams are playing over their heads over small sample sizes, and the Avalanche fit the profile really well right now.

If the Avalanche’s bloated PDO doesn’t convince you that the team will take several steps backward as the season moves forward, perhaps its subpar Corsi and Fenwick numbers will make the case.

The Avalanche are below average in both Corsi and Fenwick, which is just an elegant way of saying they are being outshot by the opposition on a consistent basis.

In the Avalanche's 1-0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday, they were thoroughly dominated. The only thing keeping them atop the standings is the play of Varlamov and Giguere, who are a combined 104 save percentage points above their career averages.

It's like a deal with the devil that's not withstanding. As long as the Avalanche continue to be porous defensively, it’s only a matter of time before things take a turn for the worse in Denver.

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