Tag Archives: Peter Forsberg

A star is born

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn't the Avs' best player.

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn’t the Avs’ best player.

When the NHL playoffs began, oddsmakers really had no idea who might emerge as an offensive force for the Avalanche. The club’s leading scorer during the regular season, Matt Duchene, was injured. So one offshore sports book set the over/under on points in the first round at 4.5. For everybody.

Paul Stastny was 4.5, Gabriel Landeskog was 4.5, Ryan O’Reilly was 4.5, Nathan MacKinnon was 4.5.

Through two games, the 18-year-old MacKinnon already has seven, tying an NHL record for the first two playoff games of a career. The 28-year-old Stastny has matched him. They are playing alongside Landeskog, the 21-year-old team captain, on a line that has dominated the first two games since coming together out of necessity late in Game 1. What’s remarkable is it wasn’t a line at all when the series began.

“We wanted to try in the first game Nate in the middle with Ryan and P.A. [Parenteau] and then we went back to this,” coach Patrick Roy explained after MacKinnon, the favorite to win the league’s Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, put on a show nobody on hand will soon forget.

He didn’t merely use his speed to fly through and around the Wild, he embarrassed and ultimately intimidated the visitors from Minnesota. One is tempted to use the cliche that he was a man among boys, except, of course, MacKinnon is a boy among men, and he’s making his elders look helpless.

His first goal of the series came six minutes and 20 seconds into Game 2, after Minnesota had taken the early lead by chesting a rebound into the net just ahead of the chester, center Charlie Coyle, who drove the goal assembly off its moorings and forced a video review to determine whether he or the puck had penetrated first. The puck won and the goal counted.

Two minutes later, Stastny picked up the puck deep in his own end and fed MacKinnon on the left side inside the Avs’ blue line. MacKinnon took the pass, veered right and carried it around Wild center Mikko Koivu as if he were standing still. The first pick in the 2013 draft accelerated across the red line with all three Wild forwards in pursuit. In front of him were the Minnesota defensemen, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon.

Prosser was to MacKinnon’s left and never got into the play. Spurgeon was slightly to his right. The Wild defenseman slid to his right to block MacKinnon’s path to the net. The Avs rookie looked for a moment as if he would blow between them. Then he swerved right. Spurgeon, whose momentum was taking him the wrong way, suddenly found himself in a Marx Bros. movie. His left skate went out from under him, his stick rose high in the air, as if seeking divine guidance, and he crashed to the ice. The only thing missing was the laugh track.

Wide open now, MacKinnon slid into the right circle and fired the puck over goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s left shoulder.

“I wanted to kind of fake to the middle and kind of jump to the outside,” MacKinnon said afterward. “I didn’t know that I’d have that much room. Obviously, I was pretty fortunate that he bit on it, I guess, and I just kind of fired it on net and thankfully it went in.”

“I was laughing,” Stastny said. “That’s unbelievable. You don’t see that a lot. When he has that much speed, you’ve got to respect him. One little shoulder fake and that’s what happens. If he doesn’t cross over, he probably goes right down the middle. That shows how much respect they have for him and that shows how good he is at kind of shifting his weight. That was a pretty sweet goal.”

Not quite three minutes into the second period, Stastny and MacKinnon combined on almost exactly the same start, except this time they weren’t quite as deep in their own end. Stastny got the puck by the left boards and fed MacKinnon on the Colorado side of the center line. Again, MacKinnon carried the puck right around Koivu in the neutral zone and gathered speed as he approached the retreating defensemen.

Ryan Suter didn’t want to do a Spurgeon-like pratfall, so he retreated faster and was ready to go with MacKinnon when he went wide. That left a hole in the middle, so MacKinnon deftly dropped the puck to Landeskog, who was trailing him, yelling, “Drop it! Drop it!”

“Sure was,” Landeskog said with a smile. “He came through the neutral zone with speed and I saw that I had some room around me and Nate kind of took the D wide and made a nice drop pass to me and I had some room so I tried to get the shot off real quick.”

Landeskog drilled the puck over Bryzgalov’s glove and it was 2-1.

“I knew Landy was coming late,” MacKinnon said. “I didn’t know he had that much time, but I heard him yelling, so kind of like my first goal, I just wanted to cut to the outside and I heard him yelling and obviously, that was a heck of a shot by Landy.”

MacKinnon wasn’t finished. Nine minutes later, he did it again, taking a pass from defenseman Tyson Barrie on the far left side, again on Colorado’s side of the red line. This time he went around Koivu by passing the puck to himself off the boards. He dashed past Spurgeon into the left corner, then backhanded the puck to Stastny in the left circle, who spun and backhanded it to Landeskog coming up the slot. With Bryzgalov hugging the right side of the goal against MacKinnon’s charge, the entire left side of the net was wide open for Landeskog, who chipped it in.

“He’s terrorizing them right now with his speed,” Avalanche analyst Peter McNab said on the telecast.

“Paulie and I, we know when we play with him to use his speed and get it to him in the neutral zone,” said Landeskog, who has three points in the series so far, all of them goals. “He’s going to take ’em wide, and then we have to yell at him a little bit to use us, but he certainly did tonight, and it paid off. The skills he’s got, the way he skates, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Minnesota coach Mike Yeo was at a loss, so he switched goaltenders at 3-1, but the game was pretty much over. When Yeo pulled his second goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, near the end, the Avs had a Parenteau empty-netter disallowed on a dubious offsides call, gave up a shorthanded goal with a minute and 19 seconds remaining, missed an empty-netter when Stastny hit a post, then finally scored into the empty net when MacKinnon insisted on feeding Stastny one more time. The final was 4-2. The series moves to Minnesota with Colorado up two games to none.

“That line was on fire tonight,” Roy said. “They played really well. Landy and Paulie and Nate, I mean they had an outstanding game. They were moving the puck really well. They were skating well. Was it the third or second goal when Paulie went from behind to put it to Landy? That was, wow, that was a super play. But I have to say one thing here: All our guys played really well. I thought that was a really good team win.”

Nobody wants to lather up the 18-year-old, for all the obvious reasons, but this kid sounded like a player twice his age. Somebody asked him which goal he would celebrate more, the first or second.

“I think I’d like to forget about everything tonight,” he said. “I’m definitely proud of the way the team played and the way Paulie and Landy played, but for me, I just want to kind of forget about it and get ready for practice tomorrow. Obviously, it’s always nice to have some personal success, but it’s not the main thing for me at all.”

Perhaps the most pronounced effect he’s having is to tame the Wild’s aggressiveness when he’s on the ice. If he has just one or two men to beat, he’s proved he can not only do it, he can embarrass them in the process.

“It’s a matter of continuing to press, continuing to push, but doing it with a sense of, I don’t want to say caution, but at the same time we have to be very understanding and aware in particular of who you’re on the ice against and making sure that while you’re pressing, while you’re pushing, you’re not opening yourself up too,” said Yeo, the Wild coach.

The fact that an 18-year-old who was playing juniors last season is doing this to a good NHL team is stunning.

“At 18, I was in college,” said Stastny. “I was enjoying my time. I was at DU. I think 18-year-olds now compared to 10 years ago are different. Body-wise, they’re more mature, they’re more advanced, whether they start working out or the science kind of develops them a little earlier. But at the same time, he’s unbelievable. We’ve seen it all year, since the beginning of training camp, so every time something happens, it doesn’t really surprise us.”

“I think since Christmas he’s been getting better every night, which is pretty scary stuff,” Parenteau said.

And it wasn’t just at the glory end. The three scoring plays all began in the Avs’ end, which, in Roy’s system, is no accident.

“You guys are looking at points,” Roy told reporters, “but I’m looking at how he performed both sides of the ice. He’s been playing well offensively, yes, but he also played really well defensively. He made some great plays and that’s what I want to see from him. I’m happy when he puts points on the board, but I want him to play well defensively, and that’s what that line did.”

Colorado hockey fans have seen great players dominate playoff games before — Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Roy himself.

Which reminds me, goaltender Semyon Varlamov was back on his game after allowing four goals in Game 1. Saturday night, he stopped 30 of 32 shots. Of the two that made it through, one was the aforementioned chester by a charging center who literally ran into the puck.

“It’s a team game,” Varlamov said. “When the team plays better, I play better.”

“I didn’t make too much of the first game,” Roy said. “In my opinion, he played well enough to win. A goalie don’t need always to be perfect. He needs to find a way to win. And tonight, he was rock solid. He made some key saves at the right time. That’s the type of performance I was, not expecting, but I thought he was going to offer. I mean, I’m having so much confidence in him. He’s been our best player all year and tonight it was just a solid game from him.”

Good as he was, Varlamov was not Colorado’s best player in Game 2. Seldom have hockey fans anywhere been treated to a show of athletic virtuosity as transcendent as Nathan MacKinnon provided Saturday night.

Sunshine, lollipops and one black cloud

Hang around the Avalanche long enough, especially on a Saturday night when franchise royalty is on hand, and you’re tempted to ignore the one dark cloud and hope it goes away.

That’s what the Avs are doing, and they’re doing it exceptionally well. Barely 48 hours after starting goaltender Semyon Varlamov surrendered to police and spent a night in jail on domestic violence charges, the Avs won both ends of their first set of back-to-back games of the season, with Varlamov in net for the first.

The Avs are now riding their second six-game winning streak of the year and they’ve played just 13 times. The turnaround in the team’s performance since Patrick Roy took over as head coach is something pretty close to miraculous. After surrendering 152 goals in 48 games last season with the same goaltending tandem — Varlamov and veteran J.S. Giguere — the Avs have surrendered just 19 in 13 so far.

Giguere, who got the win Saturday night and has given up three goals in four games, said all three stars of the game could have been Avalanche defensemen, quite an endorsement of a group much maligned just a year ago. Roy always makes sure to credit the back-checking and tracking work of his forwards, a key part of his strategic approach.

Hockey is a game prone at times to mythic themes, and Saturday night was one of those times. When Roy’s first game as an NHL coach against his original team, the Canadiens, is a secondary story, there’s a lot going on.

The Avs are very fond of tribute ceremonies and enormous paintings. The decision to raise defenseman Adam Foote’s jersey to the rafters gave them an opportunity to conduct one of the former and commission two of the latter. It also served as a reminder of the vision Roy and executive vice president Joe Sakic are trying to translate into trophies for a second time. With Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque and Alexei Gusarov in the house, there were plenty of role models around.

This year’s entire squad was out early for the ceremony. They were reminded that they aren’t the only young team to suffer through trying times before finding their stride. Foote caught the end of the lean years in Quebec before moving with the organization to Denver in 1995 and winning Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001. He’s now working as a defensive consultant with the Avs, so I asked if he saw parallels.

“Yeah, for sure there are,” he said. “I think the leadership with Roy and Joe is huge, very calming for them, just like they were as leaders for us. They believe in what they’re going to do and this confidence just floats out into the room. The players, I think, can sense it.

“When Roy came to our team, traded from Montreal, he brought accountability to the locker room. It doesn’t matter what the professional sport is. You can’t win, the coach, the GM, the owner, they can’t hold you accountable. It’s got to come within the locker room, and he taught us that. That was probably one thing we were missing. Him and Mike Keane. Mike Keane was an unreal leader.

“But I do see this young group, they went through some tough times like we did in Quebec. I know Joe wouldn’t do it, or Patrick, if they didn’t have a goal in mind, and that’s to bring a Cup back.”

They’re a long way from that, of course, but they’re playing sensational hockey right now. “For us, we haven’t done anything yet,” said Gabriel Landeskog, the talented Swedish power forward who scored one goal Saturday night, set up another and is still three weeks from his 21st birthday. “We’re just getting going.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the 36-year-old Giguere, a Conn Smythe trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion himself in his younger days. When your starting goaltender spends a night in jail, attention naturally turns to his backup. Giguere is the best interview in the room, a smart, thoughtful player willing to speak his mind, as he did last spring when he ripped unnamed teammates for thinking more about summer vacation than finishing the season strong.

But questions about Varlamov make him uncomfortable, as they do his teammates and club officials. What are they going to say? They support their teammate. These are only allegations at this point. Let the process play out.

We won’t even know how serious that process is likely to be until the Denver district attorney decides what if any formal charges to file. The charges on the arrest warrant were pretty serious — a felony kidnapping count and a misdemeanor assault charge — but there’s no way to know if the DA’s charges will follow suit.

If charges are filed, it’s hard to imagine the legal process working quickly enough to endanger Varlamov’s availability to the Avalanche this season, so long as the club continues to stand by him. And so far, there doesn’t appear to be much public relations risk of standing by him. So when a national reporter asked Giguere if he could understand some fans being happy he was in goal Saturday night rather than Varlamov, he declined comment.

Still, there’s a legitimate hockey question about Giguere’s playing time simply because he’s been nearly perfect so far. As good as Varlamov has been, Giguere has been even better. The lone goal he gave up in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over Montreal was just the third he’s surrendered this season in four starts.

The year Roy turned 36, he started 63 games for the Avs and put up a goals-against average of 1.94, the only time in his career he was below 2. He also had a career-best nine shutouts. I’d been meaning to ask Giguere if he thought he was in good enough shape to play more, but asking him Saturday gave the question Varlamov overtones and he handled it like a live grenade.

“I’m satisfied with my role right now,” he said. “It’s a role that fits my body well right now, at my age. I’m 100 percent behind Varly and 100 percent happy with the ice time I have. If need be, if I need to play more, I’ll be ready for that, but I told Patrick, ‘I’ll be happy with whatever you give me.’ This is what it is to be a backup and you’ve just got to take it a day at a time.”

The team has generally taken the approach of not commenting on the Varlamov legal matter, but Roy did answer one question after Saturday’s game. He was asked whether his response to the Varlamov allegations — to put him back in net immediately, about 36 hours after he got out of jail — was informed by his own experience, back in 2000, when he was arrested for domestic violence after police responded to a 911 hangup call from his wife at the time. They found physical damage to the house and took Roy into custody. There was never any evidence of injury to his wife, just to a door in the house, so charges were dismissed.

“I was hoping never to have to answer that question again, but the answer is yes,” Roy said. “And I guess Varly is like me, I mean, appreciates that nobody is making a judgment. The best article I think was written by Terry Frei and he said let’s not make a judgment before the process is done and I thought that was something I appreciated at the time. And I’m sure Varly appreciates seeing that support from our fans and a lot of people around him.”

In this case, the police report confirmed bruises on Varlamov’s girlfriend, Evgenia Vavinyuk, consistent with a physical encounter. So this might be more complicated than Roy’s case, but we’ll know soon enough how Denver DA Mitch Morrissey sees it.

Until then, the goaltending rotation will remain what it has been. Varlamov, 25, has started nine games and has a record of 8-1 with a goals-against average of 1.78. Giguere is 4-0 with a GAA of 0.75.

“He looks like a 25-year-old,” Roy said of Giguere. “I saw him this summer and he was working so hard. Honestly, when you work that hard, eventually it’s going to pay off. That’s what our team does. Our team works hard night after night and we’ve been consistent in our effort which is, I think, one of the reasons why we have the results that we have. And our goaltenders are a big part of it as well. But Jiggy’s been working so hard. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for what’s going on for him right now. It’s fun to see it.”

The renaissance of the Avalanche under Roy is the NHL’s best early-season story. Except for that black cloud, the Sakic-Roy management era couldn’t be off to a better start.

Time for Avalanche to return to relevance

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.