In Midst of Olympics Buzz, Avs Look to Remain Focused

Thursday, 01.02.2014 / 4:57 PM
Scott Ward

There was a lot of talk following the Avalanche’s morning skate today about yesterday’s U.S. Olympic Men's Ice Hockey Team announcement in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Colorado forward Paul Stastny was one of the 25 players awarded a spot on the squad that will compete in next month’s Games in Sochi, Russia. Defenseman Erik Johnson was not, even though he was on the U.S. team four years ago that took silver in Vancouver, B.C.

So, as the Avalanche was finishing final preparations for its game tonight against Philadelphia, the prevailing questions mostly had nothing to do with the Flyers, and they had little to do with the Avalanche.

Most of the queries centered on Colorado’s No. 26 and No. 6.

Stastny was humble in his answers—“It’s an honor, and I’m extremely excited.”—Johnson took the high road—“It’s disappointing, but my focus is on [the Avalanche] now.”

The Flyers (20-16-4) enter tonight’s game on a pretty good roll, having gone 7-2-1 in their past 10 games. They will, of course, present a challenge as the Avs (24-11-4) look to build on momentum gained with Tuesday’s 5-3 win against Columbus.

But perhaps an even bigger challenge for Colorado tonight? Focus.

In the middle of a season-long, seven-game homestand, the club diverted its gaze a bit yesterday as the nation learned who would represent it next month on Olympic ice. And with the deadline for all countries to submit their Olympic rosters coming next Tuesday (Jan. 7), a similar scene could play out more than once for other Avalanche players who are in consideration for inclusion on their respective country’s hockey teams.

Matt Duchene stands a very real shot to crack Canada’s lineup; Gabriel Landeskog seems a lock for Sweden’s team; Jan Hejda (Czech Republic) and Semyon Varlamov (Russia) also figure to get a call in the next few days.

With a sport so internationally based as hockey, this every-four-years distraction isn’t a surprise. But it is a distraction.

How well the Avalanche handles that extra noise will be key in its push over the next five weeks as it continues to maneuver for positioning before the NHL goes on its two-weeks Olympics break.

“It’s a bit of a distraction,” Ryan O’Reilly said, “but I think it’s great to see a guy like Paul get rewarded. [He’s] such a great player that gets to the Olympic team, and other guys, hopefully, will get to go to the Olympics.

“All in all, I don’t think we have any control over that, and I think guys know that, that at the end of the day we need these two points more than [anything.] We’ve got to stay in the moment and focus on what we can control, and that’s bringing our preparation and being ready to go right from the beginning.”

Should more Avalanche players earn Olympics team selections, they will be fulfilling dreams held since childhood. Those not selected will experience the heartbreak Johnson felt this morning as he stood in front of the cameras.

None of that matters much to the franchise, though. The Avalanche is clearly proud of any of its players who gain international notice, but its also in the middle of a tightly contested Western Conference race. That’s at the top of Colorado’s goals list.

“For us, what’s important is for [Johnson] to be ready for tonight’s game,” Roy said. “And he is.”

TALBOT FACES THE FLYERS

His first few hours as an Avalanche player were hectic and stress filled, but Colorado forward Max Talbot has found his place within the franchise after an October trade from Philadelphia landed him in Denver.

He’ll skate against his old team tonight and deal with the emotions that come with the situation that often presents itself in professional sports.

“Every time you play a team you’ve parted with it’s exciting; it’s different,” Talbot said. “You know all the guys on your team, but I battled with [the Flyers] for a year-and-half, two years, so it’s always special. It’s going to be a special day for me.”

Talbot, 29, joined Colorado Oct. 31 in exchange for Steve Downie. Talbot said he was on his way home for lunch that day, following Philadelphia’s morning practice, when he got a call from Flyers management, telling him he had been traded.

Avalanche executives Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy then called a few moments later, welcoming him to the team and quickly letting him know they would meet him in person that night in Dallas, where the Avalanche was set to play the Stars the next day.

“Three hours later I was at the airport and [I had] packed a big bag of stuff,” Talbot said. “It’s part of the business of hockey, but you never really expect it when it happens to you. It’s a lot of stress for a short period of time, but once you meet your new teammates, net team you kind of get familiarized with everybody and everything. It’s good.”

In 28 games with Colorado, Talbot has nine points (three goals; six assists) and is plus-two on the plus-minus scale.

On the other side tonight, Downie will bring in a relentless and fearless style that his former teammates in Colorado know well.

“Knowing ‘Downs,’ no matter who he’s playing he’s always giving 110 percent,” O’Reilly said. “He’s going to finishing every check, he’s going to be in your face. It’s going to be tough. He’s going to be playing us hard, like he always does. At the same time we’ve got to be ready for that—we’ve got to keep our heads up when he’s on the ice.

“We have to play smart against him. If we play disciplined against these guys, and they take some penalties, we’ll be on the power play.”

PREGAME NOTEBOOK

- Tonight’s game is the Avalanche’s 1,400th regular-season game since moving to Denver in 1995. The Avs are 717-498-101-83 (.578).

- Colorado and Philadelphia will meet tonight in Denver for the first time since Dec. 19, 2011, when the Avalanche prevailed 3-2 in a shootout at Pepsi Center. The Avs have won five straight home games against Philadelphia, with the last Flyers win in Denver coming Dec. 27, 2002 (2-1 OT).

- The Avalanche improved Tuesday night to 9-3-0 against Eastern Conference teams this season and 4-2 against them at home. Colorado is 5-1-0 against teams from Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Division. Its lone loss came Nov. 12 at Carolina (2-1).

- Semyon Varlamov is expected tonight against the Flyers to make his 29th start of the season. He’s also appeared twice in relief this season and is 17-8-4 overall with a 2.38 goals-against average and 92.6 save percentage. Varalmov is 0-0-1 in two career games against Philadelphia.

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