Let’s be frank. The Colorado Avalanche have a less-than-stellar chance of making the playoffs this year. Currently sitting in the 11th spot in the Western Conference, the Avalanche are tied with the once left-for-dead Calgary Flames with 56 points (Colorado has two games in hand). According to the website sportsclubstats.com, the team stands a 44.3% chance of making the playoffs come spring.
That being said, the team is only two points back of the last playoff berth, with 1-3 games at hand on every team they could conceivably overtake in the standings—the Minnesota Wild being the sole exception. What are the key components that need to fall in place for the Avalanche to make the big dance?
Perhaps the most glaring problem with this team right now is the lack of consistent and quality goaltending. Philadelphia and Chicago proved in last year’s playoffs that teams can be successful with decent goaltending, provided that it is consistent. However, the Avalanche have gotten anything but that this year. Craig Anderson, coming off a year in which he received whispers of a possible Vezina nomination, is way off his mark. Having played in only 29 games so far, Anderson’s goals against average has skyrocketed above 3.00, and his save percentage has dropped significantly, hovering around .900 for most of the season. Stalwart backup Peter Budaj hasn't fared much better, earning marks of 3.17 and .894, respectively.
The situation has forced Coach Joe Sacco to play hot potato with his net minders, alternating between whichever one he feels is hot—or more accurately, whichever is less cold. While the team doesn’t necessarily need or expect a reincarnation of Patrick Roy, the goalies, Anderson in particular, need to play better. He is nearing the end of a contract year. The sooner he realizes that, the sooner the team can make a push up the standings.
Closely related to the goaltending situation is the condition of the defense. Players like Scott Hannan and Kyle Quincey may have been bigger pieces to the team’s blue line than general manager Greg Sherman initially realized.
Ryan O’Byrne has been a pleasant surprise, but the rest of the defense is underachieving, a condition which causes a parasitic relationship between them and the goaltender. When the goalie cannot count on the defense, he starts playing tight and making mistakes. When the defense cannot rely on the goalie to bail them out, they start to collapse more often and are prone to defensive errors. It's a vicious cycle. Not to say that the goalie’s struggles are the fault of the defense, but they are certainly related, and therefore the defense needs a swift kick in the pants as well.
If the Avalanche defensemen all try to play like John-Michael Liles, who is going to protect the net? It’s time to focus on the fundamentals of hockey defense. The players need to know their roles and execute them in order for the team to be successful down the stretch, at even strength and especially on special teams play.
The circus continues. I hate to say that, because I love the guy, and if he can play, he’ll sure as hell contribute. But the simple fact is that he is a disruption to the team. Whether he is a positive disruption or a negative one has yet to play out, but while it’s in the gray area, it is not beneficial for this team.
The situation is reminiscent of the girl you had a crush on in high school. She feigned interest in you, but would never quite commit. One day she was asking you to walk home with her, and the next she was ignoring you at lunch. So you’re left on the hook trying to find out if she’ll go to prom with you or not.
Forsberg should have known whether or not he could play when he started this whole ordeal. He knew it would cause quite a stir in the hockey community and inside the team. If these players are expecting a boost from Forsberg returning and they don’t get it, will they lose hope for the rest of the season? The sooner Forsberg will rip off the band aid and find out what’s underneath, the better for him and for the greater good of the team.
Where did this guy go? For a player who was considered by many to be a lock for the All-Star Game this year, his injury late in November has taken an unexpected toll. Stewart may be the single biggest factor in the Avalanche’s fortunes this year. Before the injury, he was unstoppable. He was using his size and skill in perfect harmony, and producing from everywhere on the ice. But since his return, he has looked rather invisible during games. Perhaps the injury scared him from playing physically, or maybe he needs a couple more games to get his hands and legs back.
If he can return to form, the Avalanche become a much more formidable foe, not because he’s just another scoring cog, but because he can match up with the bigger teams in the league. The elements of toughness and size he brings to the game is essential to play against teams like San Jose, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Peter Mueller is the wild card of the bunch. His absence has been noticeable this year, especially with the man advantage. Granted, he only played a handful of games for the Avalanche last season, but in those games he showed that he has chemistry with this team, and can most definitely put up numbers. The greatest area of need that Mueller can help address is the power play. On a team with offensive defenseman (who are, for the most part, offensively challenged), Mueller provided a REAL shot from the point, something Colorado has missed since Rob Blake left town.
Additionally, the loss of Tomas Fleischmann for the remainder of the season opens up a spot for Mueller in the lineup. He just recently began skating again after a concussion, so there’s no telling whether he’ll return this season. His presence would be most welcome, and could potentially give the Avalanche the spark they need to make a real stretch run.
The Western Conference playoff race is still very tight, and it likely will not take shape until the final days of the regular season. Will Greg Sherman roll the dice on a trade at the deadline to address one of these issues? Go on a hot streak and the team could find itself with home-ice advantage in the first round. Hit a slump and they could drop out of contention early. Whatever the hockey gods have in store for the mile-high fans this season has yet to be revealed, but how these components play out will make or break the Colorado Avalanche this year.