The quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins again on Wednesday night, and the Colorado Avalanche have an invitation to the party. Certainly one of the biggest surprises of the season, Colorado is the closest thing to a Cinderella story as a No. 2 seed can be. The Avalanche have conquered the Central Division and came very close to being the best team in the west. It may have shocked most of the hockey world to see how successful the team was this year, but fans and players are not surprised. The whole state of Colorado has adopted the slogan that has motivated the Avalanche to victory after victory this season; “Why not us?”
(No. 2 Seed in Western Conference, First Place in Central Division)
Preseason Expectations: Nobody considered the Avalanche to be contenders coming into this season. They finished dead last in the Western Conference last year, and were the second worst team in the entire league after only their 1996 Stanley Cup Championship opponent, the Florida Panthers. In October when the season began, most experts had the talented, but very young, Avalanche team on the outside looking in come playoff time. Their front line was strong and capable of scoring, but their inconsistent goalie play and ineffective defense was said to be their ultimate downfall. The boys from Colorado apparently did not think much of these predictions, because they came out of the gate looking nothing like the team they were expected to be.
How they got here: The Avalanche started the season on fire, winning 10 out of 11 in the month of October. They showed no signs of slowing down, and remained contenders in the central division during the entire regular season. Often, they were looking up in the standings at both the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues, but they never surrendered their desire to win the division. Behind the extraordinary play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov and the ability to win games late, the Avalanche continued to nip at the heels of their division foes. They overtook Chicago first, and then capitalized when St. Louis got the blues and lost six straight to end the season, vaulting themselves all the way to No. 2 in the west and guaranteed home ice during the first two rounds.
Key players: G Semyon Varlamov, C Matt Duchene, D Tyson Barrie
Major moves: The biggest surprise for the Avalanche this season came with the emergence of Varlamov. He has finally lived up to the potential Colorado saw when they traded for him in 2011, and is now firmly entrenched as the No. 1 goaltender, with Vezina Trophy aspirations. Matt Duchene has also emerged as a budding star for the Avalanche, though a knee injury suffered in March will force him to miss the beginning of the post-season.
The biggest move the Avalanche made coming into this year was hiring goaltending legend Patrick Roy as their new head coach. From day one, Roy instilled his own winning ways into a franchise who was in desperate need of a leader. He has made both fans and players alike believe in the talent and system the Avalanche have, and it has created a confidence in the team that will be hard for any opponent to overcome.
“Why not us?” A simple three word phrase, has united Avalanche faithful everywhere to rally behind their coach and their team. Even if the Avs are not the most talented group in the NHL, they certainly believe they can win it all. The hard work and determination they have shown each day throughout the season has slowly turned those beliefs into a legitimate shot at bringing Lord Stanley’s cup back to Colorado.
Who they will face in the first round: The Avalanche will draw the Minnesota Wild in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite their No. 7 seed, the Wild are certainly not to be overlooked. Though they hit a bit of a rough patch over the last month, they rebounded in the final few days of the season to finish the last eight games 6-2. If they can carry the momentum of that run into the post-season, the Wild could give the Avalanche all they can handle. Over 40 percent of opening round series in the last decade have been won by the underdog.
How they will fare: Despite facing a tough Wild team, the Avalanche should win their first series fairly easily. They are playing like a team of destiny, and have proven their ability to overcome any obstacle placed in their path. Duchene is scheduled to come back near the end of April, and if the Avs can control the series early, his return could help them seal the deal.
Prediction: Colorado will win the opener, but drop the second game at home and go to Minnesota tied 1-1. They will win the next three, and knockout the Wild in five.
Conn Smythe Winner: The easy prediction for the Stanley Cup Playoff MVP is Varlamov. His strong play has been a huge part Colorado’s success, and has to continue to be if they have any chance to win it all. The defense for the Avalanche must continue to help out their goalie by playing a strong, engaging style. Though they have allowed a large amount of shots this season, most of them have not been quality scoring opportunities. This trend must continue if the Avs wish to succeed.
The unsung hero for the Avalanche in the playoffs may well be Tyson Barrie. Barrie has been responsible for at least five goals this season that have either won the game in overtime or tied it late. No doubt Colorado will need him to come through in the clutch during the playoffs to propel them to a Stanley Cup victory. Barrie fits perfectly in Roy’s aggressive defensive style, and has an excellent feel for when to become the offensive defenseman. Though Varlamov will likely take home the hardware, it will be Barrie who will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat for his young team.
Commentary by Chris Chisam