There are a pair beat writers for the Colorado Avalanche this season for isportsweb.com: Jake Hazan and I. We decided that we would put together some questions and explain some of the reasons for the Colorado Avalanche making the playoffs this season, as well as do a little looking ahead to the first-round matchup between the Avs and the Minnesota Wild.
Who would you consider to be the MVP this season?
Jake Hazan: Semyon Varlamov. Ask anyone who has even remotely followed the Avalanche this season and they’ll tell you the same thing. Varly’s 41 wins broke his coach’s record for most wins in the regular season, and frankly,
the Avalanche would not be in the position they are in now without him. The Avalanche played much better defense this season than in years past, but still allowed the sixth most shots against per game in the NHL with 32.7. None of the five teams ahead of the Avalanche in the shots against category made the playoffs. That’s why Varlamov is a leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy and should also be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP.
John Ekberg: I would agree, Jake, that Varlamov has been this team’s MVP for all the reasons given. I’ll go a different route though and give their 2nd MVP this season: Gabe Landeskog. Yeah, he may not get all of the publicity that some of the other forwards on this team get (Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Nathan MacKinnon), but he has put together the best season of his young career. The Avs captain has set career highs in goals (26), assists (39), points (65), and plus/minus (+21). Most importantly for this Avs squad, he has dressed for 81 of the 82 games. Last season, he missed 12 of the 48 games due to a concussion. Landeskog has been a consistent producer playing mainly on a line with Paul Stastny. Landeskog has a knack for driving the net and setting up teammates with great goal scoring opportunities. If the Avs are to have postseason success, look for the captain to be a major reason.
Which offseason acquisition has been the most important to the Avs success?
Jake Hazan: He may only be an 18-year-old rookie, but Nathan MacKinnon sure didn’t play like it this season. A lock to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie, MacKinnon added a huge boost to the Avs’ lineup this season. He scored 24 goals, racked up 63 points and even took a shot at some rough stuff with NHL vets. Props to Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy for hitting the bull’s eye with MacKinnon amid some doubts and pressure at the time to take Seth Jones.
John Ekberg: Taking a look at strictly the free-agent or trade acquisitions the Avs made, I believe that one of the most important so far has been a pair of lesser known defensemen: Nick Holden and Andre Benoit.
I’ll admit, I did not buy into Nick Holden the first few times I saw him dress for the club, but he finished the season with 10 goals and 15 assists in 54 games, along with a plus/minus rating of +12 (fifth best on the team). Benoit has been a very reliable defenseman this season and has put up some solid stats of his own, with 7 goals and 21 assists in 79 games played, second on the team only to Erik Johnson who played in 80 games.
How much did the division changes affect the Avs’ success this season?
Jake Hazan: The changes made it a whole lot tougher for the Avalanche to accomplish what they did. The division change meant that the Avalanche would have to play high pressure games against better teams like Chicago and St. Louis. Of all the teams in the Avalanche’s previous division, only the Avalanche and the Wild made the playoffs. So basically, the season the Avs were able to have is even more impressive because of the new alignment.
John Ekberg: Yes, the division that the Avs were placed into was definitely one that is much tougher than the one that used to consist of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Minnesota. However, one thing that helped the Avs this season was that they did not have to make nearly as many road trips to Canada as they have over the past decade. They have not had to play nearly as many games that start especially late in the Denver market, which I believe has been a huge benefit for this Avalanche team in keeping them more fresh.
Does the youth on the roster help or hurt the Avalanche in the playoffs?
Jake Hazan: It helps. Much had been made of the Avs’ lack of playoff experience, but people underestimate the playoff experience Patrick Roy has. OK, Roy can’t play, but he will assure this team with loads of confidence and steer the ship in the locker room when the water get bumpy. Having players in the locker room like J.S. Giguere and Maxime Talbot helps, too. If the Avalanche can make an extended run in the postseason their young legs will be a factor and the bruises from the playoff grind will heal quicker than those on older players.
John Ekberg: Of course there are going to be positives and negatives to this. The positives are that the “Cardiac Kids” will surely be skating as fast as they have all season at the beginning of the postseason, especially in their opening series against the Wild. The challenge for this group will be in how they respond to the chippy nature of playoff hockey, as many of their skill players are not as physical as the skill players on other teams like the St. Louis Blues or the San Jose Sharks. However, that has not slowed them down in the regular season, so why would it slow them down now?
Will the Avalanche be able to overcome games in the playoffs when Varlamov is not at his best? How good is this offense?
Jake Hazan: The Avalanche won’t get far if Varlamov isn’t playing well. He’s been the Avalanche’s MVP all season and they will need him to be on his game in the playoffs. With that said, the Avalanche’s offense isn’t chopped liver. The Avs average three goals per game, well enough for fourth in the entire NHL and have five players that scored 20 goals. Some teams like the Minnesota Wild will want to slow the pace of the game down and muck it up against the speedy Avs, so Varlamov will be key to keep the team on track when certain games get gritty.
John Ekberg: There will be games in the playoffs in which Varlamov will let in a few soft goals. Happens to all goalies. However, I believe that this Avalanche team has the mental ability to overcome anything at this point. Throughout the last few weeks of the season, there were numerous times where they entered the third period down a goal or two and somehow just managed to manufacture goals. I look back to the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets in which the Avs scored two goals in the last 10 minutes of the third period which bounced off of Blue Jacket players, then won the game in overtime on another goal that deflected off a Blue Jacket. This team finds ways to win, even when Varlamov is not on his game. However, one key thing to watch in the playoffs is that the Avalanche are 36-0-2 in games in which they head to the third period with the lead. If the Avs are able to grab a lead and take it to the third period in a game, it has been lights out this season. It will be interesting to see if this trend can continue.
How far of a run can this team make in the playoffs?
Jake Hazan: All the way to the finals. Call it a homer picks, but a hot goaltender can carry a team in the playoffs. The Avalanche have the hottest goalie in the Western Conference and talent up front to get the goals they need to win. Everyone slept on the Avalanche all season, so I won’t count them out in the playoffs.
John Ekberg: Looking at potential matchups, I think the Avs actually do have a favorable path to the finals. Call me a homer too, but look at the evidence: The Avs were 4-0-1 against Minnesota this season. They will then take on the winner of the Chicago Blackhawks/St. Louis Blues series, and if the last 2 weeks of the season are anything to use to predict that outcome, it will more than likely be Chicago, whom the Avs were 4-1-0 against this season. That at least gets them to the Western Conference Finals, and anything goes from that point. I know the critics are saying that without Matt Duchene this team will be devastated and won’t be able to score, but like you mentioned earlier, he is only one of the five 20+ goal scorers on this roster. They will be fine on offense. It will more than likely come back to how their defensive core steps up to the challenge.