Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, after the Avalanche lost its second game in a row and dropped three points out of the NHL playoff bracket, I asked coach Joe Sacco how his newest charges, recently-acquired forwards Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn, were fitting in.
“I think with Jamie it’s starting to come,” he said. “He didn’t come in and put up four, five points in two games like Downie did, but he’s also not that type of player. I thought tonight he was more noticeable, though. He was involved in the game. He had an impact on the game. He was physical. He was in their face a little bit. I think he drew a penalty. So I liked his game tonight. I think it’s starting to come. He’s getting more comfortable.”
Twenty-four hours later, McGinn scored both goals in the Avs’ 2-0 victory over the Wild in St. Paul, Minn. Neither was the sort of pretty skill play the club so often requires. Both were rebounds in tight spaces amid the scrum of bodies around the goaltender’s crease, the sort of play hockey folks call gritty.
“First opportunities are good in this league, but you need second and third looks around the net in this league, especially with good goaltenders,” Sacco said Saturday night. “So I’d like to see us have a little better net presence like we did in the stretch when we were winning some games. We’ve gotten away from that lately.”
Following Sunday’s win in Minnesota, the Avs are within one point of eighth place in the West. These battles they’ve been fighting over the past several years to sneak into the bottom of the playoff bracket are not particularly inspiring to fans once accustomed to true Stanley Cup contention, but they are better than being completely out of it, as the Avalanche was in two of the past three seasons.
For years after their arrival from Quebec in 1995, the Avs could count on selling out every home game. Their average attendance was always 18,007, the building’s capacity for hockey.
Since the sellout streak was broken during the 2006-07 season, their average home attendance has slipped from 17,612 that season (13th in the league) to a low of 13,947 (27th) in 2009-10. This season, it has rebounded to an average of 15,455 (23rd) through 34 home games.
They have accumulated enough young skill players to climb back into hockey relevance. In Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, Paul Stastny and Jay McClement they have four legitimate centers around whom to rotate a group of wingers they’re still working on. In 19-year-old left winger Gabriel Landeskog, they have a candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and an emerging star at power forward.
Young goaltender Semyon Varlamov has been up and down in his first season in Colorado, but he may be heating up at the right time. He has surrendered four goals in his last five starts, two of them shutouts, and is 4-1 over that span.
The defense, too, has been inconsistent, but former first overall draft pick Erik Johnson seems to have regained his confidence, and Ryan Wilson, now paired with Jan Hejda, has been arguably the team’s best blue-liner.
Avs fans are understandably tired of hearing about potential. In a league where 16 of 30 teams qualify for the playoffs, their team has failed to make the cut in three of the past five seasons. It is time for all the trades and all the high draft picks to start producing results on the ice.
The Avs have 15 games remaining. I asked Sacco how he sees his club’s prospects of climbing back into the playoff picture and staying there.
“I like our chances,” he said. “I like the group that we have in here. We’re resilient. We’ve had a couple of different scenarios during the course of this year where we looked like we might have been down and out, but we came back. This situation that we’re in right now is no different.
“It’s going to be hard, there’s no question. It’s going to be difficult. But I like the group that we have in there. We have a good mix of players. The locker room I feel is real strong right now, and so we’ll come through this.”
Adding the grit of Downie, now injured, and McGinn was not only an admission that the Avs were a little soft. It was also a suggestion that toughness was the final ingredient necessary after years of accumulating young talent. There’s a lot to like about the young Avs, but a fan base can live on promises only so long. Since moving to Colorado, this club has never missed the playoffs two years in a row. Now would not be a good time to start.
“We’re right there,” said Duchene, who returned to action eight games ago after missing two months with a left knee injury. “There’s no reason to panic or anything yet. We’ve obviously got to make up some ground now. Dallas is winning their games and a lot of other teams are winning their games and we’ve got to start doing the same.”
Before Saturday night’s game, the Avs held a ceremony honoring Rob Blake, who retired as a member of the San Jose Sharks at the end of last season. Blake came to Colorado in a trade from Los Angeles near the end of the 2000-01 season, just in time for the club’s run to its second Stanley Cup.
At the season opener last fall, they held a ceremony honoring Peter Forsberg, who finally gave up the ghost of a comeback last year. Joe Sakic is now in their front office. Milan Hejduk, the last remnant of the good old days, has slipped to the fourth line.
It’s time to stop looking backward. The glory days were great, but they’re long gone. The last Stanley Cup parade was more than a decade ago. It’s about time for these new Avs to show what they’ve got.