One of the running themes for this year’s Avalanche (and the 2009-10 Avalanche, and the 2010-11 Avalanche) is that they’ve largely been powered by unsustainably high percentages and winning despite poor puck possession and being regularly outshot. Their gamess against the Blackhawks and Coyotes did little to dispel this. Despite coming out with what were ostensibly statement wins – a 5-1 drubbing of the defending champions and a gutsy effort to recover a blown lead in Phoenix – the Avs were soundly outplayed, and outcompeted by both opponents. Once again, they fell into the trap of overreliance on Semyon Varlamov to save their bacon, as he so often has this season.
So this last victory over the Kings made a refreshing change. By even strength Corsi, LA is the top possession team in the league and not only did the Avs outperform them, they steamrolled them. A 4-minute double minor gave the Kings no momentum, and over even strength the Avs outshot them nearly twofold. Only a brilliant game from sudden superstar Ben Scrivens allowed the Kings to escape with a not-particularly-deserved point, which was probably a pretty good representation of how other fanbases feel during Avs games.
Aside from Corsi, zonestarts are another way to demonstrate a team’s possession numbers, and the Avs had 19 offensive starts to a scant 7 in their own end. After Patrick Roy’s adjustments over the 1st intermission, they did an extraordinary job of keeping the puck out of their zone and driving it in the right direction. The line of John Mitchell, Max Talbot, and Cody McLeod took 3 defensive draws, allowing Roy to shelter the 4th line – a major liability in previous games – by keeping them out of their own end. They produced several strong energy shifts in the Kings’ zone, also largely fueled by Marc-Andre Cliche going 7-1 in faceoffs to allow them to start with possession.
The Nathan MacKinnon and Paul Stastny lines were given 70%+ offensive starts as well, which demanded major adjustments from Darryl Sutter – of the Kings’ defensemen, Drew Doughty, Jake Muzzin, Alec Martinez, and Willie Mitchell each took only a single faceoff in the Avs’ zone, so focused were they on neutralizing the Avs’ ace scorers. With their best defensive pairing hemmed in, the Kings found it difficult to gain momentum or push for any counterattack, especially with the likes of Stastny, Talbot, and Tyson Barrie playing truly excellent games. Stastny especially deserves accolades – previous games against the Kings have been decided by Anze Kopitar’s dominance of any centre matched against him, but on Saturday, Stastny was the best skater on the ice bar none.
I feel like this is the kind of game that really outlines how much of an improvement possession hockey is over being carried by your goalie and hoping to score a few on the counterattack. It was the best 1-0 match I’ve watched in a long time, and a lot of that enjoyment came in just seeing the Avs play so flipping well. Give me this over a hundred of the Chicago game and I’ll be a happy fan.
Incidentally, to those who still decry the idea of luck being a determining factor in hockey games, consider the game-winning goal: Scrivens makes an easy save, but a fluke bounce off a sliding Jarret Stoll knocks the puck right back past him. In the Coyotes game, Michael Stone beat Varlamov from the red line, and this after Andre Benoit scored a deflection off the post and then Mike Smith’s back. Sometimes shot quality goes to shit and volume is all you need.
Unfortunately, the Western Conference is still airtight, and despite being on pace for their best ever season, the Avs sit back in the 6th position. As it turns out, this applies to a couple of teams, as the lower seeds also have conveniently lower franchise highs.
Blues: On pace for 132 points, franchise record is 114.
Avs: On pace for 127 points, franchise record is 118.
Sharks: On pace for 125 points, franchise record is 117.
Hawks: On pace for 125 points, franchise record is 112.
Ducks: On pace for 117 points, franchise record is 110.
Kings: On pace for 115 points, franchise record is 105.
Wild: On pace for 112 points, franchise record is 104.
Coyotes: On pace for 109 points, franchise record is 107.
Some of this speaks to the absurdity of the loser point, but the top end of the West is still collectively crushing its competition. Detroit and Columbus had better thank their stars they were relegated to the Loser Conference, because this playoff race is going to be absolute hell.