The Avs as a Surprise Isn't a Surprise

The Avalanche's early-season story began last spring, when coach Patrick Roy returned to the franchise.

Friday, 10.25.2013 / 4:39 PM
Scott Ward

Patrick Roy told everyone his team was going to do this. He told them during the offseason. He told them during the preseason. He said it again in early October.

“We just want to surprise the world of hockey.”

He didn’t say that with the type of braggadocio he was known for exhibiting as a player. He also didn’t say it like someone trying to convince himself of the thought—though some probably thought that was the case.

No, he just let the words come out like they were a matter of fact. After spending 10 years away from the game’s highest level, Roy came back to the NHL last spring with a goal in mind and a thought about the capability of this Colorado Avalanche team.

Reporters would ask him what he wanted to do in his first year as a coach.

“We just want to surprise the world of hockey,” Roy would say.

They would wonder how he envisioned his first year going.

“We just want to surprise the world of hockey.”

They would ask what his plans were to get the Avalanche franchise back to the level it was when he was a player?

“We just want to surprise the world of hockey.”

And here we are. Roy’s team was 8-1 entering its Friday night game against Carolina, and the Avalanche is the talk of the NHL. Colorado hasn’t lost on the road this year. It had allowed 16 fewer goals than it had scored. It has earned each and every one of its wins.

The Avs are shocking the world of hockey, and Roy told everyone this was going to happen.

But how did we get here?

Though Roy never really wanted to get ahead of himself and get into specifics, we can all now take a look at the team’s early-season data and answer that question with a little more clarity.

Some will look at the offense and say that’s where the success of this team lies. Heading into Friday night the Avalanche sat in the top half of the NHL in scoring with 28 goals and had nine different players who had scored five points or more, with fifth-year-forward Matt Duchene leading the way with nine points (6g/3a). That depth of scoring potential had allowed Colorado to win in a variety of ways, with a variety of players (six) putting in game winners.

Defensemen scoring has also been a bright spot. Erik Johnson’s end-to-end score last Thursday against Detroit gave the Avs their third blue-line goal of the season, which was just two shy of their 48-game total from last year.

"We have a lot of skill, lots of speed, and I think its been working for us so far,” right wing PA Parenteau said. “We are pretty hard to match in depth. We have four really good centermen, and we are deep down the middle. Guys are playing well, they are using their speed, and that's why I think we've been hard to match so far."

And while the offense has had success through the early part of the season, Colorado’s defense and goaltending has been, in a word, outstanding, allowing just 12 goals through nine games (1.33 GA), which was the lowest in the league coming into Friday.

Goalies Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere combined two weeks ago to earn the NHL’s Second Star of the week and have been stellar every night out. The duo had allowed just those 12 goals in 304 shots against and provided the back end to an Avalanche defensive effort that started the season by holding opponents to one goal or less in each of its first five games, becoming the first team in NHL history to begin a season with five straight wins while allowing no more than one goal in each game.

“You can’t say enough about our goalies,” Left wing Jamie McGinn said. “They are our No. 1 star right now, and they have a lot to do with the reason why we’re 8-1.”

None of this is to mention Colorado’s penchant for penalty killing. The Avs killed off seven Pittsburgh power plays Monday night, giving the team 28 successful penalty kills against just three power-play goals allowed to that point in the season.

That equated to a 90.3 penalty-kill percentage, which was nearly three points higher than second-place Boston (87.5). To add some perspective, the difference in penalty-kill percentage between the Avalanche and the Bruins is more than the difference between the Bruins and seventh-place New Jersey (84.62).

“The [penalty kill] has been outstanding—it’s No. 1 in [the] NHL right now, which is pretty outstanding,” Roy said. “Defensively we have the effort of all our guys. The six guys on the ice have been playing really well defensively for us. Our tracking has been good, our positioning, we’ve been blocking a lot of shots. This is the type of defense we look for.”

All this data certainly helps to pinpoint the reason for the Avalanche’s success this season. Colorado has spread it around on offense, scored more than its opponent in all but one game and has gotten exceptional blue line and goaltending play in every game.

That’s the, “How,” to this story. But what about the, “Why?”

What is it that Roy brought with him when he chose to come back to Denver? What elements has he added that have seemingly aided team chemistry and improved the mood around the franchise?

What is the “it” that Roy is doing so differently, and why is it working?

“That confidence level that we’ve had since Day 1 of training camp is something that Pat (Roy) brought with him,” Parenteau said. “It’s been good so far. Everyone’s been embracing it. We know what we can accomplish.”

Added McGinn: “We were prepared coming into this season. We had a really strong training camp, we worked hard. We had a lot of systems in place, but it was a lot to learn and take in at the same time. We were taking it one day at a time, trying to work hard and learn as much as we can, and right now it’s carrying over into the games. It’s been a lot of fun.”

The answer to all of this may be found in those words Roy said again and again, before this all got started. Perhaps we should have known this was going to happen. In those words—“We just want to surprise the world of hockey,”—lies a confidence and an expectation for greatness that Roy has always demanded. He’s demanded it of himself, of his teammates and, now, of his players.

He’s seen this work before. He had great success as a player, and he had great success as a major-junior coach in Quebec. Now, he’s off to a great start in his NHL head coaching career.

By saying what he said he tempered enthusiasm while raising expectations all at the same time. Roy demands a high level of play and workmanship from everyone involved with the franchise, but he also expects a levelheaded approach, no matter the goal.

He was asked Wednesday if he would need to change anything in his motivational approach in the afterglow of the Avalanche’s strong start, and he succinctly waved it off.

“I want us to come and work hard everyday and remain humble and take it one day at a time,” He said. “You cannot go too far ahead.”

Roy doesn’t want to change anything, because that’s now he’s wired. That’s not how he was coached, and that’s not how the championship teams he was on operated. He laid the groundwork on his first day back in Pepsi Center, and he’s been building on that single sentence ever since.

“You can say the word, ‘culture,’ but it means nothing if you cannot do the things that go with it,” Roy said Friday. “To me, it’s how you’re going to prepare yourself for every game. It’s not something you wake up in the morning, and say, ‘Now we have a culture.’ It doesn’t work that way. It’s a process that you need to build, and that’s what we’ve been trying since the start of the season. Obviously, you have to believe in yourself at the end of the day. You have to believe in what you’re doing, and I think our guys are believing in themselves right now.”

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