There seems to be a air of confidence over on Chopper Drive at the Pepsi Center this year that wasn't there last year, and it's showing in the Avalanche's on-ice play so far in this young season.
This team was expected to come in and dwell near or at the bottom of not only the Western Conference, but the entire league. No one respected the Avs enough to even give them a puncher's chance, but after five games, the Avs are 3-2 and could very easily be 4-1.
So far, this team looks nothing like the team that most expected to see. Now before we get ahead of ourselves here, as I've stated previously, it's too early for any foolish predictions. However, this team—right now, anyway—is solid.
Most will tell you that it's the newness of the season, and they're "skating by" on adrenaline. No pun intended...or maybe it was.
Anyway, that may be true, but from what I can see, there are some very good reasons for the Avs' great start. Here are my top five reasons, in reverse order.
5. The Emergence of Wojtek Wolski
Make no mistake about it: This last summer, the gauntlet was thrown at Wolski's feet, and the Avalanche organization challenged him probably more so than anyone else. Wolski has responded in a big way, amassing six points in five games with four goals.
The challenge of the organization isn't the biggest reason for his hot start, however. I think what you're seeing from Wolski is a young man who has finally turned the corner. He's caught up with the speed of the game. He's learned the nuances and ripples of the game, and gotten stronger, thus making him a better player.
But maybe most importantly, he's learned that success isn't easy to achieve nor is it given to you. In Junior Hockey, Wolski was a stud, an elite player. Now he's realized, at this level of the game, it takes hard work to earn it, and his play is showing that.
This season he's been much more physical, and much more assertive and decisive in the offensive zone, which is why we're all seeing a young star develop right before our eyes. His decision-making has been nearly perfect in the attacking zone in regard to when to pass or shoot, and when to take the body or the puck.
He's a smarter player this season. And I can only think that having Milan Hejduk and Paul Stastny as his linemates has given Wolski the ability to just play within himself and let the game come to him, instead of feeling like he has to do it all and force the action...which is what we saw so often last season.
This is the Wolski that the Avalanche have been waiting on for the last couple of years, and right now he's proving that the wait was worth it. Call it maturity.
4. Offensive Presence from Defensemen
The Avalanche this young season have been very good in all the zones of the ice, and particularly good in the offensive zone. The Avalanche have been able to contain the puck and generate good scoring chances down low thanks to great play from their defenseman in the opposition's zone.
The Avalanche defensemen have been excellent in the offensive zone, mainly because of their positioning and tenacious style of puck pursuit. They've shown that they're becoming a tough team, which is what Sacco promised upon his arrival.
Kyle Quincey is the only defenseman in the NHL to score at least a point in every game so far this season, and that's HUGE for the Avalanche. To date, Quincey has six points, with five of those being assists.
That tells me that he's seeing the play develop from the point and has been able to contain the puck when needed. Quincey has been superbly physical this season, and has proven that any issues with his back are gone.
Defensively, the Avs haven't been stellar, but they've been solid. They've been able to block a lot of shots and give netminder Craig Anderson lanes to see the shot coming at him. That's incredibly important for a goaltender, because normally he can't stop what he doesn't see.
Physical play has been the key to the success of the defensive corps this season, and with that play has come an intimidation factor, which in my eyes, has become obvious in all of their games. Opposing teams know they're going to get beat up a little with this team. And that's a good thing.
3. Getting Out to Early Leads
You want a stunning factoid? The Avalanche have not trailed after the first period or second period once so far this season. No, that's actually NOT a typo, you read that right: not one time.
The Avalanche are getting out to leads early and often, and they're sustaining those leads deep into the game. If a team can do that, they're going to have success, and the Avs' 1.000 winning percentage when leading after the first and second periods shows that.
The Avalanche have outscored their opponents by a total of six to one in the first period, and by a total of 13 to seven in the second period. Those leads have held up well so far, and aside from a couple of late third period lapses, they've been able to capitalize on those early leads.
2. Solid Penalty Kill and Power Play
Folks, the Avs have been over 90 percent on the penalty kill. That's a staggering number. When a team has a penalty kill percentage of better than 90, the other team is getting virtually no chance of setting up in its offensive zone.
This goes back to the defensive play, positioning, and physicality of this team, as mentioned in No. 4 above. This team is playing extremely well on the PK, and doing that will certainly limit the damage in shorthanded situations.
Conversely, this team is No. 2 in the league in Power Play percentage. That means that when teams make mistakes against the Avs, they're going to pay. The Avs are among the best in the league at converting those PP opportunities, and that's big.
Year in and year out, you can look at PK percentage and PP percentage for an accurate depiction of how good a team actually was or is. Right now, using those two stats as a barometer, you can see the Avs are playing as an elite team.
1. Craig Anderson
Is Craig Anderson finally the guy to fill the void left by St. Patrick?
Anderson has been nothing short of spectacular this season. His numbers are amongst the best in the league, and he's playing like a man possessed.
He's played in all five of the Avalanche's games so far this season, and his save percentage is currently .935. Of all the other goalies in the NHL that have played the same number of games (12 total), NONE of them have a better save percentage than Craig Anderson.
Not Marc Andre-Cleury, Martin Brodeur, Miika Kiprusoff, Cam Ward, Ray Emery, Henrik Lundqvist, Evgeni Nabakov, Johnathan Quick, Thomas Vokoun, Roberto Luongo, or old friend Jose Theodore.
NONE of them.
Anderson's GAA (Goals Against Average) is 2.18, and guess what? None of the players mentioned above are better in that regard, either.
Anderson has been absolutely phenomenal for the Avalanche this season, and is showing that even though he's been a backup for the majority of his career, he's capable of being a starting goaltender.
Now he must continue this play, and be cognizant of his body so that he doesn't overwork himself early. That said, Anderson is a professional, and he understands it's a marathon and not a sprint. I expect him to perform at a high level all year.
There are still going to be some questions about this team moving forward. Namely, can Anderson do this over the course of an entire NHL season? Can the defense continue to play at the level it is? Can the top line produce as it has? Can the Avs keep getting the same contributions they have from the second, third, and fourth lines?
I can't answer all of those questions, but I can tell you this: If what we've seen so far is an indicator of what's to come, then the Avalanche appear to be headed in the right direction, and earn more legitimacy everyday.
As I've mentioned before, inevitably there are going to be cold stretches that they'll have to deal with, but with what I've seen, I now believe they can.
They play tough. They play tenacious and they play with purpose. Any time a team does that, it has a chance.
Staying healthy is going to be of pivotal importance moving forward, and if they can avoid the same injury bug they have been bitten by for the last couple of years, they can be legitimate.
All that said, I expect this team to compete—all season long. And I expect them to continue to get better in all facets of this game. With expectations comes hope, and I for one hope all of you expect the same as I do.
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