If you haven’t watched the Colorado Avalanche since their awe-inspiring 2013-2014 season, not a whole lot has changed.
They still post subpar possession numbers. Semyon Varlamov is still pretty damn good at tending net. Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon are both still trending up, Matt Duchene is still underappreciated, and their defence is still one giant question mark.
The only thing that’s changed? Their luck.
That, my friends, is the difference between a team being intentionally sub-par (a la the current Leafs) and unintentionally tanking their second consecutive season (a la the current Avalanche). Buckle up, ladies and gents – tonight is gonna be fun.
So far this season, the Colorado Avalanche have gone 17-16-1 and currently sit 6th in the Central Division.
That’s an improvement over where they were at the start of December, and by a long shot. The Denver-based club has quietly amassed a five-game winning streak, and that’s the only thing keeping them from being in absolute basement-dwelling panic mode.
For the Leafs, that’s bad news. Hitting a bad team on a hot streak is the last place a club like Toronto wants to be, especially if they want to play a good game. The Avs are finally starting to look like a club that could crawl out of the Auston Matthews sweepstakes, and their head coach is the kind of guy who won’t take kindly to falling back down to earth.
The good news, of course, is that the Avs are still pretty bad.
Colorado is one of those weird clubs with a winning record overall, but a losing record at home; that could work to Toronto’s advantage if tonight is a night that the Avs just don’t want to play well in front of their own fans. They also boast one of the league’s worst power play (converting on only 17% of their chances while on the man advantage) and continue to produce comically bad possession stats.
Offensive possession data only accounts for so much. We know this. But the Avalanche are dead last in possession by a full four percent, suggesting that no one comes close to being as bad at possessing the puck as Patrick Roy’s skaters.
Playing against a possession-driven, Babcock-coached club? This is a winnable game for Toronto.
Reason number one that I hate Patrick Roy: he misuses Jarome Iginla, putting him on a line full of slowing, aging veterans instead of utilizing his hockey smarts with young, fast, fresh talent.
Is it working right now? Maybe. Is that what you’re paying Jarome Iginla for? No. If it helps the Leafs win, though, more power to him.
On defense, Erik Johnson has been hot and cold this year and I still think that Zach Redmond and Brandon Gormley are basically interchangeable parts. I won’t like this roster until Andreas Martinsen is no longer mysteriously a top six forward and Andrew Agozzino is given a shot at cracking the lineup over Cody McLeod.
The Leafs continue to play craps with their centre depth, swapping Tyler Bozak and Nazem Kadri again and continually insisting that Byron Froese needs to be the team’s fourth line centre (spoiler alert: he shouldn’t be).
On defense, Frank Corrado got his one NHL game and is back to the press box as a healthy scratch. He’s been taking shots against James Reimer in practice today, which is nice, but isn’t appearing in the lineup tonight, which is less nice. Time to ride that Roman Polak train until it bursts into flames again.
JVR and Parenteau have been money together for a few games now, so that’s a wing pairing that won’t get broken up anytime soon while Leo Komarov is still a top six forward. If Mike Babcock wasn’t extremely good at his job, we’d be screwed, but he is and we may win tonight.
Coming off a 5-0 victory, the Leafs are giving Jonathan Bernier the chance to ride out his hot hand.
I won’t wax poetic about Bernier because we all have our opinions of him (and no one seems willing to change their minds anyway). He’s got the opportunity to win this game, though, and that’s important.
Across the ice, the Avs are giving starter Semyon Varlamov another nod in hopes that he’ll be able to continue winning for them. I’m a huge Varlamov fan, and I probably always will be; there’s a lot of raw technical talent being offered in both nets tonight, so it’s hard to give the advantage to one goaltender over the other.
The big question will be whether one team’s offense will be able to push someone over the edge in net tonight. Both Varlamov and Bernier have their raw talent in common, but they have something else in common this season as well – they’re both under a lot of pressure to perform well. Every NHL goaltender is, but these two are in an especially tough spot; the Avs are getting desperate to find their way back into the post-season while the Leafs are looking for Bernier to stop losing games on one or two too many bad-bounce goals a night.
I have an unreasonable bias against Patrick Roy, and I won’t even begin to deny it. He’s poor to his goaltenders, obtuse in his ability to identify problems with his team, and I think he’s the reason Colorado is about to become the next Edmonton.
That being said, this won’t be an easy game for Toronto, just on talent alone. The Avalanche have a roster chock-full of players that other teams covet, from Landeskog and MacKinnon to Tyson Barrie, Erik Johnson, and Varlamov. Carl Soderberg is filthy in a middle six role, and Jarome Iginla was my favorite Boston Bruin for exactly one season.
Is this game winnable? Of course. Toronto has the smarts, system, and work ethic to walk away triumphant. Will it be easy, though? No, I don’t think so.