In short, yes. Whether or not they will compete is another topic, hopefully for mid-April. It’s not an easy road for the Avs though, who have upcoming games against the Canucks, Coyotes, Sharks, and Predators. 7 of the last 8 games will come against teams in the hunt for the playoffs, though, which makes the solution simple: win and you’re in. There are a lot of things that need to change if the Avalanche hope to become a legitimate competitor. They have had plenty of quality wins this season against some of the toughest teams in the league, including a win at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit that ended the Red Wings 24 game streak without a regulation loss at home. But poor decisions, spotty goal tending, and bad division play could easily mar the fact that they have a very solid team right now.
Of the last 8 games, they will play 4 against division opponents, and unfortunately the Avalanche have been horrible this year against Northwest Division teams. Against non-division opponents, they are 33-17-4, one of the best teams in the league. But versus division opponents, the Avs are 6-13-1 with two of those wins coming March 4th and 6th against the battered Minnesota Wild. Don’t get me wrong, we’ll take any wins the team can get. But where are those moments of greatness like a shutout against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins, or the 41 saves Varlamov made against the East-leading Rangers a few nights ago? Those moments of greatness don’t happen in division games this year. Whether it’s the Sedin’s of Vancouver embarrassing our defense or Miikka Kiprusoff of Calgary stopping 40 or more shots, division teams have their greatest games against Colorado this year. This must end before Colorado can be a contender. It’s a little scary that the teams who play you most have clearly figured you out.
Goaltending has been another area of question this season. Semyon Varlamov has had games of complete genius, and games of complete chaos, and I don’t think it’s a defense problem. Neither does Joe Sacco, who has turned to veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere on more than one occasion this year when Varlamov has struggled. He’s got his starting role back, but is still giving up a half-goal per game more than Giguere. I know the team wants Varlamov to be the goalie of the future, but for winning now J.S. might be the better man for the job. Being one of just 5 players to win the Conn Smythe trophy (MVP of
the playoffs) for a losing team (the 2003 Anaheim Ducks), he is no stranger to solid goaltending when it matters most. This man held the Minnesota Wild to 1 goal in an entire conference championship series! Until Varlamov proves otherwise, and consistently, Jean-Sebastien Giguere should be the number 1 goalie for the Avalanche.
There are other things the Avalanche do to collapse in close games. It’s hard to say if these are coaching problems, match-up issues, or a disbelief the players have in themselves. The average team has around 8 overtime losses right now. Colorado has 5. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but those extra 3 points could have us much more secure into a playoff spot right now. There are moments late in games when great teams who have fallen behind find a way to dig deep and force overtime. On too many occasions this season, the Avs have lacked that ability. Just when you think they have the momentum to score that last minute goal to tie it up, Coach Sacco uses his timeout, pulls the goalie, and the team gives up an empty net goal. It’s happened more times this season than I can recall in any season in the teams’ short history in Colorado. Whether it’s a matter of coaching decisions, players’ heart, or saving a little something for the last 5 minutes, the team MUST figure out a way to dig deep and score in those closer situations. Until they do, they will be on the disappointing end of close games. This league is so full of talent, that the difference between bad teams and good teams is discovered in those close situations. And the difference between good teams and great teams is consistency in close games. And come April, you just can’t afford to be average.
The most frustrating thing for a fan to watch a team do is destroy itself. You know your team is great, but they just refuse to show the world! Player for player, Colorado has one of the most talented teams in the league. And we can only hope they get their chance to prove us right. They just came home from a 3 game road trip out east, scoring 5 of 6 possible points against the Rangers, Devils, and Sabres. And if the Avalanche can continue their solid 2nd half, and fix the problems mentioned above, we could see this young, talented team become one of the best Avalanche groups we’ve seen since the 2001 Stanley Cup winners.