Game in and game out, from a pure entertainment perspective, has there been a better team to watch this year than the Colorado Avalanche?
They are young, dynamic and some of Patrick Roy's larger-than-life personality has rubbed off on them. They are confident without being cocky, but also well schooled and reasonably competent defensively. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is arguably the team's most valuable player, but centre Matt Duchene has made great strides year over year, which is why the knee injury he suffered in Saturday's win over the San Jose Sharks could be devastating.
According to the results of an MRI, Duchene will miss roughly four weeks, meaning they'll likely have to muddle through most or all of the first round without him. The Avalanche sent the injury update out via Twitter Monday morning.
The Avalanche are probably better poised than most teams to overcome the loss of their No. 1 centre. In the short term, Roy promoted John Mitchell to the top line and he responded with two points. He could stick with that, or shift Nathan MacKinnon, the odds-on favourite to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year, to the middle.
MacKinnon, a natural centre, has moved back and forth between the middle and the wing all season depending on how Roy wanted to deploy him. MacKinnon played centre in Paul Stastny's absence earlier in March, then shifted back to the wing once Stastny returned. Increasingly, he is becoming a force, a teenager making an impact. Maybe it was the Olympic break, but MacKinnon hasn't seemed to hit the wall the way so many young players do in their first season.
But if Duchene's injury keeps him out of the opening round of the playoffs, what a loss it would be for an Avalanche team that has reached the 100-point mark for the first time in a decade. Duchene's injury is eerily reminiscent of a similar gutting incident that happened three years ago to the Los Angeles Kings' Anze Kopitar, just before they were starting to get good.
Kopitar blew out his knee in a Mar. 26th game when he was 10th in the league in scoring at the time. The Kings mustered up a good effort in the first round against the San Jose Sharks in 2011, but without Kopitar, they just didn't have enough scoring when it mattered.
Duchene is to the Avalanche right now what Kopitar was/is to the Kings. He'd scored 70 points in 70 games this year before the injury and kept talking at the Olympics in Sochi about how much he was learning about winning from his Team Canada teammates, three of whom played for the Chicago Blackhawks – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith.
The Avalanche and the Blackhawks look destined to meet in the opening round of the playoffs. Colorado won four out of five in the regular season, which will give them hope there's some spillover into the postseason. Chicago is currently without Patrick Kane and limping to the finish line, but they'll likely get him back in time for the playoffs and it may well be that his forced time off will put some gas back in his tank.
Chicago also lost Toews on Sunday night to an upper-body injury, although after the game vs. the Penguins he was listed as day-to-day.
Colorado was the first of last year's non-playoff teams to qualify for the 2014 postseason. Sometimes the history of teams that make a big year-over-year surge is that they're one-and-done in the playoffs, not exactly content to rest on their laurels but unable to find another gear when the pace of play picks up. Colorado might be immune to that sort of natural letdown just because of the Roy factor; and how the confidence that oozes out of him at every turn seems to have soaked into that team.
The Avs' young captain Gabriel Landeskog noted Saturday that a quick playoff exit wouldn't qualify as a successful season.
"We're certainly not satisfied with just squeaking into the playoffs," he said, "we want to do damage."
Colorado is also playing without P.A. Parenteau, who led them in scoring last year, and Alex Tanguay, who was giving them credible work on the second line before an injury sidelined him for the year.
Saturday's win gave Varlamov his league-leading 37th win, three off Roy's single-season record for goalie victories, 40, established in the 2000-01 season. Six of their final eight games are on the road, beginning Tuesday in Columbus, but Roy's mark is well within Varlamov's reach.
Also noteworthy in that win over San Jose: Ryan O'Reilly took his first penalty of the season, for playing with a broken stick. O'Reilly had gone 71 games averaging just fewer 20 minutes of playing time per night without incurring a single infraction, minor or major. With him hovering near the top 30 in NHL scoring, it leaves him as a solid candidate for the Lady Byng trophy in a year when both Roy (Jack Adams) and MacKinnon (Calder) are the favourites for two other major awards with the season winding down.
THE RACE IS ON
The reeling Minnesota Wild pulled out an important win Saturday, rallying from a one-goal deficit to defeat the Phoenix Coyotes and give themselves a three-point cushion over the Coyotes in what is essentially a three-team race for the final two playoff spots in the West. Five teams are already in – Chicago qualified Saturday, even though the Blackhawks were idle, after Phoenix lost in regulation. Minnesota's win came with Ilya Bryzgalov between the pipes and that's significant, not just because he was the Coyotes' goalie for years before leaving for free-agent riches in Philadelphia. The Wild needed depth in goal and plucked Bryzgalov out of Edmonton at the trading deadline – passing up on Jaroslav Halak and other available netminders – and now it isn't completely clear whom they'll turn to, if they do indeed hang on for a playoff spot. Josh Harding carried them through Christmas and rookie Darcy Kuemper carried them for a stretch, but he hit a wall in the last two weeks. Bryzgalov is now undefeated in regulation (3-0-2) since joining the Wild. At the very least, it gives coach Mike Yeo an option if they make the playoffs and they need to make a switch in goal. It would be hard to dispute that Saturday's date with the Coyotes was the game of the year for the Wild and so, Yeo sent a clear message by making Dany Heatley a healthy scratch for what is believed to be the first time in his career. Heatley is on an expiring contract and the Wild will gladly spend the $7.5- million earmarked for him this year on help elsewhere next year. But the fact that Yeo gave Heatley the night off in what was a clear must-win situation for the Wild suggests that he may not figure greatly in their plans even now, down the stretch and into the playoffs.
THE DEVILS YOU SAY
Even after losing Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk in successive seasons, the New Jersey Devils have been unexpectedly competitive this season. They'll miss the playoffs, largely because of their inability to win games in shootouts. Following Saturday's 2-1 SO loss to the New York Islanders, the Devils dropped to 0-10 in shootouts this season and have lost 14 in a row overall dating back to last year. If they were 5-5 and had five extra points, they'd be in the playoff hunt for the final two weeks of the season. They have just a single shootout goal all season.
Anaheim has overtaken San Jose for top spot in the Pacific and with two games in hand and its next five games against teams outside the playoff picture (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Nashville, Edmonton again then Vancouver), the Ducks seem poised to win the division and avoid the Los Angeles Kings, for at least the opening round. Anaheim has 23 road wins this season, a franchise record, and 48 wins in all, which they've only ever done once in team history, 2006-07, when they won the Stanley Cup. Bruce Boudreau has done an excellent job coaching the team, but he also had a little input into a small player transaction that has made a big difference just before the start of the season. The Ducks sent the NHL's other John Mitchell – a 6-5 Wisconsin grad, not the ex-Leaf currently with the Avalanche – to the Capitals with a fourth-round pick to acquire Mathieu Perreault, who played for Boudreau in both Hershey and Washington. Perreault was the odd-man out after the Caps signed Mikhail Grabovski, but he's been a good fit in Anaheim, with 18 goals playing mostly centre on the second line and he is currently on an eight-game point streak.
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