A Look at the Colorado Avalanche's Playoff Series
New friend to The Hockey Guys, Courtney Beckham of “ChicksWhoGiveAPuck“, takes a look at the Colorado Avalanche and their first round series with the San Jose Sharks.
The Colorado Avalanche and San Jose Sharks are set for game two of their best of seven playoff dance. Given the performance the Avs gave on Wednesday night we have to look back in order to see what lies ahead for these two Western Conference foes.
The tone for the series was set long before April 14th, 2010. This series has a backdrop that dates back to at least 1995. It was the season after the NHL lockout and Gary Bettman was sending the Quebec Nordiques to Denver, CO. A bleak day for those in the capital of Montreal, but the move would prove to be successful for the players, the fans and the NHL as a whole. The Avalanche would benefit from two of the three largest ‘one-sided’ trades in history. The first and biggest is of course ‘The Trade’ that took place on August 9, 1988 when Wayne Gretzky left Edmonton for Los Angeles.
So what am I talking about?
On June 30, 1992, Eric Lindros was sent to the Philadelphia Flyers for Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, two first-round picks (one used to select Jocelyn Thibault, the other traded twice, eventually used by the Capitals to draft Nolan Baumgartner) and $15 million.
Le Trade occurred on December 6, 1995, four days after Patrick Roy and head coach Mario Tremblay had gotten into it because Roy believed Tremblay was trying to humiliate him and demanded a trade. From that trade which saw the Avalanche send Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Ručínský, and Andrei Kovalenko to Montreal for Roy and Mike Keane. These two trades gave the Avalanche a stacked house; it came as no surprise to those who follow hockey that they won the Stanley Cup the first year they were in Colorado.
The Avalanche have not had a ‘successful’ season since 2001 when they won their second cup. In 2003 Patrick Roy retired after losing to the Minnesota Wild in the playoffs. 2006 was the first time they failed to make it to the playoffs, missing the mark by one point, though they had more points than three of the Eastern Conference teams.
And last year was their worst year ever; they finished last in the Western Conference and 28th overall. To make matters worse, the only captain they’ve ever known or loved injured himself with his snow-blower. Season ticket sales dropped to dismal rates, the team that broke sellout streaks by selling out games from 1995 till 2006 could barely fill half the arena. Where had all the fans gone in Colorado? Fans didn’t want to spend money watching a team without the big names & according to hockey insiders the Avalanche were supposed to finish 15th in the Western Conference again. Quite simply put, no one was giving this team a shot in hell.
Scouting is the name of the game for the Avalanche. Picking up the third pick overall they selected Matt Duchene. Watching him play you’d never know he was a mere 19 years old or a rookie. He’s got the stick-handling skills of Peter Forsberg, a shot like Joe Sakic and quick feet have him skating circles around his opponents. The Avalanche had five rookies on their full time roster this season, more so than any club. Their five rookies put up more goals and assists than any other club as well. Experts said these young kids would falter, hit a wall because they lacked the experience and the leadership the Avalanche had would not suffice.
Fast forward to April 5, 2010 in Vancouver against Northwest Division rivals the Canucks the Avalanche were heading to a shoot-out. New goaltender Craig Anderson stopped all three of the attempts by the Canucks. Milan Hejduk got stuffed on the left side and Roberto Luongo took away the shot from Chris Stewart. Duchene is the last player to go in the first round. Skating up the middle he does a series of quick dekes before faking backhand and going forehand with a quick hit under the crossbar for their playoff berth. It was the youngsters that had gotten them this far and it would be the youngster that got them into the playoffs. When experts and fans alike had written off this young team they found a way to come back and “get ‘er done”.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
San Jose, CA – The San Jose Sharks are number two in the league, number one in the Western Conference and number one in the Pacific Division. Their opponent is the young, inexperienced Colorado Avalanche who just barely sneaked into the playoffs. Their goaltender has no playoff experience, their coach is in his debut as is their GM, most of the players on their roster have not been to the playoffs let alone played in this many games, what could go wrong?
Much to the Sharks dismay the young players for the Avalanche came out strong. For a team that lacks experience they stayed with them till the very last second. Chris Stewart came away the hero when he threw the puck at the net. The hockey gods were smiling down on him as it bounced off of Sharks’ Captain Rob Blake’s skate with less than 49 seconds left in the game. Blake took out Avs’ Peter Mueller in the last meeting of the two teams with a hit from behind that left Mueller with a concussion and out for the time being.
For the most part both goalies were strong, despite having no previous playoff experience Anderson stopped 25 of the shots he faced, allowing only one goal in. Evgeni Nabokov, who has been under the microscope given his playoff history and recent Olympic performance, stopped 28 of the shots he faced. For a team that has struggled to put the puck to the net the Avalanche out-shot the Sharks 12-3 in the second period when they capitalized on a goal from John-Michael Liles on a power play. The defenseman recently found himself out of Coach Sacco’s doghouse by producing key goals & defensive plays when it mattered. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he stepped up yet again to put the Avalanche on the board. Then in the third period Ryan Clowe out-fought the puck from Liles & beat Anderson with 12:01 left in regulation. Refusing to get beaten down the Avs stuck to their system – they’ve had the benefit of being in difficult need to win positions before and stayed calm. The goal with less than a minute left San Jose feeling down & the boys from Colorado with a little spring in their stride.
Friday, April 16, 2010
San Jose, CA – The Sharks have stated that this game is not a ‘must win’, but isn’t it? While it is doubtful the Sharks will go down without a fight, or a ‘W’ the Avalanche could put them into panic mode with a win tonight. Here’s what both teams need to do in order to come out on top & the three biggest challenges they face.
The Sharks need to get the Avalanche to start squeezing their sticks & questioning their abilities. To do this they need to play as physical as possible & keep the puck in their offensive zone. Keep them to the outside & get on the power play. The Avalanche have struggled with their penalty kill since losing Tony Granato to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Often their sticks are stagnant & you’ll find them double teaming while short-handed. Nabokov needs to play like he does in the regular season, solid. If they lose tonight it’s because Naby was soft, they didn’t play aggressively enough, & they panicked.
No longer using the element of surprise the Avalanche will need to work just as hard as before on their forechecking, neutral zone play and shots on goal. They need to need to be aggressive yet smart, pinching on the offense only when their fastest defenders are on the ice. In order to get past the Sharks they will need to play physical, control the boards, out hit, out skate & crash the crease. Make Nabokov’s life hell, screen him, crash him, & shoot the puck at him. If they can make him falter they can win. Find the weakness & exploit. The biggest challenges they face are turnovers, getting the puck to the net, & getting outplayed physically. If they can prevent the 2 on 1 opportunities, get the puck out of their defensive zone & stay with the Sharks they have a shot.