Lighting The Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
It should come as no surprise that the visiting Colorado Avalanche hockey club was picked by most hockey writers, including those at The Hockey News, the self-styled "Bible of Hockey", to finish sixth in the Central Division and not qualify for the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs. After all, the Avs finished dead last in the Western Conference last season, winning only 16 games, finishing with 39 points, second worst in the entire league. Their beleaguered goaltenders, Semyon Varlamov and J-S Giguere, gave up 152 goals, an average of 3.2 per game, ranked 14th in the Conference and 27th in the league.
An over-all weak team defense permitted an average of 31.4 shots against per game. Only Edmonton allowed more shots against in the Western Conference. Despite the presence of stars Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk, Colorado only scored 116 goals, ranked 14th in the Conference and 27th in the league last season.
So, it comes as a huge surprise that the Avalanche has done so well so far this season, high atop the division standings with a blazing offense and a stingy defense, showing only two losses in 17 games. What happened to cause this turn-around? Colorado decided to go back to the future.
In May 2013, long-time Avalanche captain Joe Sakic (HHOF 2012) became the Executive Director of Hockey Operations. Sakic played his entire 21-year career with the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche franchise, earning two Stanley Cups, numerous trophies and awards and played in 13 all-star games. He currently ranks ninth on the all-time list of NHL point producers with 1,641 and 15th on the all-time list of goal scorers with 625, 15 ahead of Bobby Hull and 15 behind Dave Andreychuk.
And then 13 days later, Patrick Roy was named Head Coach and Vice-President of Hockey Operations. Coach Roy first joined Colorado in a lopsided 1995 trade that saw him (and former Blue Mike Keane) dealt from Montreal for forwards Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko. "Le Trade" was a response by an inexperienced first-year Montreal GM, Rejean Houle, to a long-time heated rivalry between Roy and Coach Mario Tremblay that started when both were players for the Canadiens. Arguments and disputes worsened when Tremblay retired and then did radio work, constantly criticizing Roy and belittling him on-air. When Tremblay was hired as Coach four games into the 1995-96 season (with absolutely no coaching experience), the point of no return was reached when the new coach reportedly shot a head-high puck at his goaltender during practice just before a December 2 game against Detroit. Roy was peppered for five goals in the first period (on 17 shots) and four in the second (on nine shots) and was jeered by the home crowd. In response, Roy raised his hands in mock celebration after easy saves. When Tremblay finally pulled Roy late in the second period (former Blues goaltender Pat Jablonski relieved him and allowed two more goals in Montreal's worst home game in franchise history), Roy stormed past him and left the bench, passing by Montreal team president Ronald Corey, reportedly saying, "It's my last game in Montreal." And it was as Roy was suspended and traded to Colorado on December 6. Roy went on to win two Stanley Cups in Colorado (previously winning two Cups with Montreal) and is the only player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP) three times. He played in 11 all-star games and was inducted into the HHOF in 2006. Roy's #33 jersey is retired in both Montreal and Denver.
The hockey gods smiled on the Avs' new management and rewarded them with the number one pick in the 2013 amateur draft. Colorado won the draft lottery and selected center Nathan MacKinnon to bolster the offense. He is joined by Captain Gabriel Landeskog, a first round (2nd overall) pick in 2011 who missed a significant number of games last season with injuries. Colorado's offense is currently ranked fourth in the league, slightly ahead of the Blues' goal production.
However, the real reason for the Av's success is the outstanding play of goaltenders Varlamov and Giguere. Colorado's defense is ranked second in the league (only Boston is better). Giguere is second in the NHL with a goals against average of 1.00 in 5 games and Varlamov is 11th with a 2.00 g.a.a. in 11 games. Giguere is second league-wide with a .970 save percentage; Varlamov is 11th at .936. And this huge turn-around from last season can be attributed in part to the Avs' new goaltending coach, Francois Allaire, perhaps the most outstanding unknown coach in the NHL.
Allaire was the genius who developed new goaltending techniques during the 1980s as Montreal's first-ever goaltending coach. He encouraged use of the butterfly style, in which the lower part of the net is protected by the net minder dropping to his knees, spreading the pads like a butterfly spreads its wings. Allaire taught Roy the fundamentals in Montreal, winning two Cups in the process. He was hired by Anaheim and coached the relatively unknown Giguere to a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2003, as well as a Stanley Cup in 2007. After a stint in Toronto, Allaire rejoined Roy in Denver earlier this year.
A Blues-Avs match-up is always a close, hard-fought contest and with division bragging rights on the line, tonight will be no different. Victory will come to the team that best limits shots against and takes better advantage of scoring opportunities.