It's been a while since the Colorado Avalanche truly captured the imagination of sports fans around our fair state. So, with the Avs up 2-0 against the Minnesota Wild in their first-round playoff series and game three slated for tonight, it's time for those who haven't been paying close attention to do some catch-up. Here are our top ten things you need to know about the Avs to get back up to speed.
Number 10: The Avs weren't expected to be all that great this season
Pretty much no one expected the Avs to win the title in the National Hockey League's Central Division or earn the number two playoff seed in the Western Conference. Take the predictions offered by TheHockeyWriters.com's Kevin Goff. He had lots of good things to say about the team's potential, but he still picked the Avs to finish ninth in their conference. An excerpt:
This team has a long way to go before they are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but this year is the year where that will begin to happen. The Avalanche are going to be in contention for the playoffs until the last day of the season, but I'm not ready to declare that they will make the playoffs. I won't be surprised if they do, and by all means they really should, but I think there are enough things that this team still needs to do to improve before they will fully turn this corner and, until I see it happen, I can't predict that it will.
Number 9: Nathan McKinnon wasn't supposed to be the Avs' first draft pick
For months leading up to the 2013 draft, for which the Avalanche had earned the first pick through ultra-mediocre play the previous season, most observers thought the squad would select Seth Jones, an impressive prospect who grew up in Denver. Instead, the Avs' braintrust went with MacKinnon, who new coach Patrick Roy had watched up close and personal while coaching in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The choice looks like genius now. MacKinnon has been so hot during the playoffs to date that he's practically melted through the ice. And it's only the beginning: He's just eighteen years old.
Prior to MacKinnon's arrival, Matt Duchene was the Avs' hottest young star, and he had his best campaign to date in 2013-2014 -- and as a bonus, he earned a gold medal at the Sochi Olympics with Team Canada. But then he injured his knee in a collision with a teammate and is unlikely to play during the first round of the playoffs. Thus far, however, the Avs haven't missed a beat despite him being sidelined.
Number 7: Gabriel Landeskog hits hard
Hockey players are rightly known for their toughness, and Landeskog definitely continues this tradition. In early 2013, he was out for an extended stretch with a concussion, and in October, a leg injury put him on the shelf for a while as well. But whenever he's in the lineup, he plays balls out and inspires his teammates to do likewise. And then there's his knack for key goals -- like the two he scored during game two against the Wild as part of a line that teamed him with MacKinnon and Paul Stastsny.
As game one against the Wild was winding down, Minnesota had a 4-3 lead and a puck sliding toward the Avs' empty net. The only thing that stood between Colorado and defeat was the incredible will of Erik Johnson, who rocketed after the shot and knocked it away inches from sealing the victory for the Wild. Afterward, Pardon the Interruption host Tony Kornheiser gave Johnson an A+ for his effort -- something Kornheiser only rarely does. But the mark was 100 percent deserved.
Number 5: Paul Statsny is seriously underrated
Because Paul Stastny has been with the Avalanche for the better part of a decade, he's played with a lot of lousy teams, and in recent years, he's been taken for granted by even some sharp hockey observers. Take this May 2012 piece in Bleacher Report that asked whether the former DU product should be considered a mainstay or trade bait. Given his incredible performance in the first two playoff games, signs point to "mainstay."
Last October, goalie Varlamov made the wrong kind of headlines when he was busted for allegedly stomping on his girlfriend. The charges against him were dropped the following December, but he received more negative notices after what was regarded as a lousy Olympics that ended with the Russian team he anchored being bounced early despite having home ice advantage. Since then, however, he's been solid in net for the Avs and is a big part of their rise. Bet he's enjoying his April a lot more than he did several other months over the past year.
Number 3: Fans are coming back
As the Avs' fortunes plummeted, so did the number of people who ponied up to watch them skate at the Pepsi Center. According to HockeyAttendance.com, crowd size fell for four consecutive years following a high-water mark of more than 18,000 per game in 2005-2006. But attendance was up more than 6 percent from last season to this one, and that trajectory should only keep going up.
At the outset of the season, Patrick Roy gave the people what they wanted: a full-scale freak-out during which he nearly brained Mighty Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau with a slab of Plexiglass. Such actions didn't become a regular feature: Roy has remained on a fairly even keel since then. But his display sent a message that calmly accepting mediocrity was no longer an option for the Avs.
Number 1: ...and he's got a gambler's mentality
In game one against the Wild, Roy pulled Varlamov with about three minutes to go -- extremely early by most coach's conservative standards. The decision nearly backfired but didn't; see number six above. Instead, the Avs scored the tying goal with only seconds left in the game, then won it during overtime. This triumph was directly attributable to Roy's bold move, and it's certainly energized the Avs since then. Let's hope it keeps doing so for many more playoff games to come.
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Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
More from our Sports archive circa May 2013: "Videos: Patrick Roy fights show intensity he'll bring as Avalanche's new coach."