PITTSBURGH – If there’s a better story in hockey right now than the surprising Colorado Avalanche, we haven’t heard it. In a matter of weeks, the Avs have gone from a passing curiosity because of Patrick Roy’s move behind the bench to the talk of the entire NHL.
Is this for real?
“We’re trying to surprise the world of hockey,” Roy proclaimed after his team improved to 8-1-0 with Monday’s 1-0 victory over Pittsburgh.
“I’m sure the guys are having a lot of fun because it’s so positive around the team. Everybody is talking about our team and it’s something that I think we all enjoy.”
You can’t miss the feeling of excitement when you walk into Colorado’s dressing room. It’s as though a massive weight has been lifted. There were plenty of whispers last season about how dysfunctional things became under previous coach Joe Sacco and the players have essentially started acknowledging that fact now.
Roy’s arrival seems to have come at exactly the right moment for this young core group. The Hall of Fame goaltender is unafraid to let his players have some fun at the rink provided that they remain even keel and business-like no matter the result – a challenge that will only grow if the wins keep coming.
While they were fortunate to leave Consol Energy Center with two points after a 34-save shutout by Jean-Sebastien Giguere, it almost seemed as though they expected to knock off the Penguins.
Clearly, there is a sense of belief growing.
“There’s a lot of pride in this organization,” said centre Matt Duchene. “It’s nice to feel that old-school pride that that logo carries again. It starts with Patrick and (vice-president of hockey operations) Joe Sakic. We’ve had a good team for a few years and we’ve just underachieved majorly.
“Now we’re finally doing what we’re capable of doing.”
This victory was probably even more impressive than the one Colorado posted at TD Garden in Boston earlier this month. In fact, it was the first time Pittsburgh was shut out in a regular season game at home with Crosby in the lineup since it moved out of Mellon Arena in 2010.
It wasn’t for lack of trying by the Penguins and their captain.
Crosby was all over the ice on Monday and managed to outshoot the entire Avalanche team 5-4 during the first period. However, Giguere stood tall while also receiving plenty of support from his teammates in the form of 22 blocked shots.
What stands out most about Colorado’s success so far is the fact that it has allowed just 12 goals in nine games – a testament to the play of Giguere and Semyon Varlamov. Both have credited Roy and new goaltending coach Francois Allaire for helping improve their play.
“It’s a new season, a new attitude all around,” said Giguere. “A lot more positive.”
The next question that will start being asked about the team is whether it can sustain the success over a long season. It won’t be easy. Beyond a fairly deep group of forwards, the Avs boast a no-name group of defencemen – and they won’t win much if they make a habit of being outshot 34-14 like they were against the Penguins.
Not that anyone was complaining about how they got the job done on Monday.
“You’re going to win some ugly ones over the course of the year, ones you’re not supposed to win,” said Duchene. “It was greasy in every sense of the word.”
Even though it’s extremely early, the Avs are currently sitting atop the Central Division – a place no one expected to see them at any point in the season. They finished 29th in the NHL a year ago, which allowed them to win the draft lottery and select Nathan MacKinnon first overall, and came into training camp simply looking to make some positive strides.
Mission accomplished on that front so far.
“It’s still a learning experience, we’re still a young team, but we’ve got to start somewhere,” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, who scored the lone goal against Pittsburgh. “Right now we’ve got a good thing going.”
The challenge now is making sure it stays that way. Even after the victory over the Penguins, they seemed pretty realistic about their situation.
“Yes, the players know that it’s going to be a challenge for us to make the playoffs,” said Roy. “At the same time, every point you get right now they can’t take them back from you.”