Next Question: Can Avs sustain success?
October, 14, 2013
By Craig Custance | ESPN Insider
Chuck Myers/MCT via Getty ImagesSemyon Varlamov is 4-0 with a 1.00 goals-against average for the Avalanche.There are three undefeated teams remaining in the NHL, two of which you probably expected to be at the top of the standings in San Jose and St. Louis. The other is Colorado.
With their win over the Capitals on Saturday, the Avalanche improved to 5-0 to start the season. They're averaging 3.6 goals per game, putting the Avalanche in the top five in the NHL -- which was expected from the talented group of forwards in Denver. What wasn't expected is the team's stellar defense and goaltending; in five games, Colorado has allowed just four goals and is building confidence with each win.
"We take it one day at a time and just say, 'Why not?'" Patrick Roy told reporters in Washington. "Why not us?"
The news: The Avalanche are 5-0, playing spectacularly on both offense and defense.
Next question: Can they keep it up?
A look at what's going right with the Avalanche starts in goal.
Semyon Varlamov made 40 saves against the Capitals, and Roy said his scoring chance count suggested there were plenty of quality saves in that 40. Roy's work with Varlamov in preparing for Saturday's game was another example of how the coach is using his experience to help the young talent in Colorado.
Roy, who knows what it's like to be traded and wanting to beat the team that did it, sat Varlamov against the Bruins the game before Washington to make sure Varlamov was rested and mentally prepared for the Capitals, his former team.
"I said, 'Have fun,'" Roy said. "It's the way I approached my games in Montreal. I want to have fun. It's a special night for him."
It's been a special season for Varlamov, who now has to be considered very much in the running for the Russian starting goalie job in the Sochi Olympics, though there's plenty of competition. Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has a .921 save percentage and the Islanders' Evgeni Nabokov is at .927.
Before the season, I asked Varlamov if the Olympic battle gives him extra motivation.
"I don't think about it right now. It's too early to think about it," he said. "I try to stay focused now on my job here [in the NHL]." The approach has worked for Varlamov, with his control and consistency driving his success. He's always had the athleticism and explosiveness to go pipe to pipe, but Roy said his positioning has been impeccable, always square to the shooter. "He's under control," Roy said. "He stays inside the pipes." On offense, the Avs have been as good as expected. No. 1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon has six points in five games. Matt Duchene, P.A. Parenteau and Jamie McGinn each have three goals, with Duchene's empty netter against the Bruins a perfect example of his skating and explosiveness.
Dave Tippett, who helped coach Team Canada during the World Championships, mentioned this week that the skill level of Duchene during that tournament was one of the biggest surprises for him. He said he didn't fully realize just how talented Duchene was, and gained a greater appreciation for his skill set.
So, why not the Avs?
At some point, Varlamov's shooting percentage is going to return to earth. He's currently at .970 and leading NHL starters with a 1.00 goals-against average. At his best, in 2010-11, he finished with a .924 save percentage, so even a return to that level is a fairly dramatic drop.
And we're still concerned about the defense. The top four minute-earners for Roy on defense are Jan Hejda, Andre Benoit, Erik Johnson and Cory Sarich. Benoit's ice time has jumped from 16:25 last year with the Senators to 21:41 this season. Sarich is averaging 18:43 of ice time per game. In the last decade, the 35-year-old has only one season in which he's finished the campaign with a higher average ice time than his current pace.
The advanced stats for both defensemen are a little alarming, considering that Andre Benoit's Relative Corsi at minus-32.8 and Sarich's at minus-10.1 suggest that a lot of shots are going the other way when they're on the ice.
As a whole, the Avalanche defense is giving up a lot of shots, with opponents averaging 34.2 shots per game, a number that may be inflated because opponents have been playing catch-up so far this season. But of the 11 teams that allowed more than 30 shots per game last season, only three made the playoffs.
There's room for even more improvement offensively. Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny still don't have a goal this season, and the Avalanche as a team are shooting 6.93 percent at even-strength, compared with 11.84 (Blues) and 11.29 (Sharks) for the other undefeated teams. If that number increases, they will still be able to compete when their goaltending returns to earth.
The trend: The Flyers have lost back-to-back games after winning the first game following the firing of coach Peter Laviolette.
Next question: Is Philadelphia any better under new skipper Craig Berube?
The Flyers beat a struggling Panthers team 2-1 in Berube's first game behind the bench, and have dropped two in a row since. They haven't scored more than two goals in a game this season, although Berube saw signs of improvement at even-strength against Detroit on Saturday, agreeing that it was Philadelphia's best 5-on-5 game of the season.
Besides a lack of scoring, the Flyers have struggled to stay out of the penalty box, which is a fixable problem for Berube.
"We've got to stop taking penalties," Berube said after Saturday's loss. "That's been an issue in this organization for too long. We will get better at it, the style we want to play, the skating. You won't take as many when you're moving your feet."
If Berube can correct this problem, the Flyers have been getting strong goaltending from Steve Mason, who has a .935 save percentage in four games this year for the Flyers, despite just one win. However, it still might not be enough. As much talent as the Flyers have up front, this team still needs another finisher, which points to roster construction over coaching as the problem right now.
Philadelphia's team shooting percentage is just 5.26 at even-strength (No. 24 in the NHL, according to hockeyanalysis.com), so more goals will come when that improves. It might be time for general manager Paul Holmgren to help his new coach out and make a move for a scoring winger.