The goalie considered the best in Avalanche history returned to the team’s front office and bench last season and has helped lead the franchise on one of the more remarkable turnarounds in NHL history.
The goalie some consider the best in the NHL this season provided an appropriate exclamation point to the club’s 180 on Saturday by helping the club clinch a playoff berth with a dominant between-the-pipes performance.
You know who each of these goalies are, of course.
The former is Patrick Roy: NHL Hall of Famer and Avalanche legend. The latter is Semyon Varlamov, who hasn’t yet earned any of his coach’s distinctions but is trying his darndest to do so and might just add a couple before the end of the season.
Vezina? Conn Smythe? Stanley Cup champion?
They’re all possible now—now that the Avs (47-21-6) have clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2010.
A different player has stepped up nearly every night for this team this season, but the one near constant has been Varlamov. And he might have played his best game of the year Saturday afternoon vs. San Jose (47-20-9), in front of a standing-room only Pepsi Center crowd.
He made a season-high 47 saves against the Sharks, earned his career- and NHL-best 37th win of the season, moved within three victories of Roy’s single-season franchise-record (40) and helped the Avs to their seventh 100-point season in franchise history.
“We have been waiting for this moment for the last couple of years,” said Varlamov, whom the Avalanche acquired via trade in the 2011 offseason. “Right now we are all excited—the Colorado organization, the boys—because after this game we are in a playoff spot finally.”
Roy retired from playing in 2003 and is always considered in any discussions on the best NHL goalies of all time.
He was hired in late May, appointed the Avs’ head coach and vice president of hockey operations, and now has his former club on this year’s playoffs bracket just a year after it had the league’s top overall draft pick.
Roy’s been quick all season to deflect any sort of praise for the story this year’s Avalanche has become, and he did it again Saturday afternoon when asked to summarize Varlamov’s performance.
"Our goalie was phenomenal," Roy said. "He made a lot of big saves for us. He was moving well in his crease. In my opinion, it looked pretty easy for him. He made a lot of saves a lot easier than they appeared. [San Jose] is a good team and they shoot from everywhere."
The Sharks, indeed, did shoot from everywhere, whipping 49 pucks at Varlamov (also a season high), including 18 in the first period and 20 in the third.
Didn’t matter, though. He made save after save, shutting the goal down over the final 30 minutes, and Pepsi Center cheers easily cleared the 100-decible mark as he continued to thwart San Jose’s hurried, final-second tries.
Varlamov improved to 7-1-1 this season when facing 40 or more shots and 6-0-1 when getting to 40-plus saves.
“I can’t really describe in words what Varly means to this team and to us, making close to 50 saves,” said center John Mitchell, who played for the first time in four games (back injury) and scored the game winner about six minutes into the second period.
“For him to stand on his head like that for us—and he has been doing that all year long—he’s certainly something special.”
In notching 100 points for the first time since the 2003-04 season, the Avalanche moved ahead of idle Chicago in the Central Division standings.
That puts it back in the driver’s seat for earning home-ice advantage in the playoffs, where the Avs would likely play the Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks.
“Who would have thought, eh?” Roy said. “It's pretty impressive for our group. Now we're a point ahead of them with a game in hand, which is even better for us, but there's a lot of hockey left for us. It will be interesting to see how things are going to go at the end."
There was just one hiccup Saturday for the Avalanche, but it’s potentially a doozy.
Center Matt Duchene, the Avs’ leading scorer, suffered an apparent knee injury on his first shift, just 32 seconds into the game, and he didn’t return after retreating to the Avs’ dressing room. A press box announcement between the first and second periods confirmed his absence.
He collided in the Sharks’ zone with teammate Jamie McGinn at 19:28 of the first period and struggled to skate back to the Avalanche bench. He’s scheduled for an MRI on Sunday, and Roy said the team would know more following that.
“Obviously everyone knows he hurt his knee,” Roy said. “We’re certainly going to know more after that. That’s all I can say for now. Obviously he was disappointed. He is playing so well right now. It’s not good news for him, and it’s not good news for us, as well.
“It’s the way it’s been for us all year. We’re always trying to find ways to win hockey games, and we’re going to have to continue to find ways to win hockey games.”
Duchene is in the midst of his best professional season, having already scored 23 goals and helped out with a career-high 47 assists.
He played for Team Canada at last month’s 2014 Winter Olympics.
“It’s happened all year,” said Mitchell, who filled Duchene’s center spot on a line with Ryan O’Reilly and McGinn. “[PA Parenteau] is out, Pauly (Paul Stastny) has been out with a little bit of significant time. You know, that just gives everybody an opportunity to get bumped up in the lineup, and you have to go out there and do those things.
“I hate to see Dutchy go down—obviously he’s one of our best players—but that’s the nature of the beast and the sport. Things like that are going to happen, so everybody’s got to step up their game when guys are gone.”
Forward Ryan O’Reilly committed his first penalty of the season (in his 72nd game) when he was called for "playing with a broken stick" 8:49 into the third period. It's a bit of an obscure rule, but here's this from the official NHL rules -- specifically Rule 10.3:
"A broken stick is one which, in the opinion of the Referee, is unfit for normal play.
"A player without a stick may participate in the game. A player whose stick is broken may participate in the game provided he drops the broken stick. A minor penalty shall be imposed for an infraction of this rule."
O'Reilly's stick broke during a face-off in the Sharks' zone with San Jose's Logan Couture, and, O'Reilly was left with roughly a 12-inch piece. He subsequently kicked the puck in attempt to clear and the referee immediately raised his arm.
"It happens," O'Reilly said. "I think they thought I was going to stab someone with it when I broke it there."
» The Avs’ 47 wins are their most since winning a franchise-record 52 games in 2000-01. Colorado is 25-11-3 at Pepsi Center, which is their most home wins since 2009-10 (24). The last time the Avs won 25 games at home was 2007-08 (27).
“I give a lot of credit to our players,” Roy said. “I’m thankful for the opportunity, but I’m also thankful for them to accept what we’ve been trying to do all year. They deserve a lot of credit for what this team has done.”
» Five of the Avalanche’s six previous 100-point seasons have come since the franchise relocated to Denver in 1995
» The Avs are 41-6-2 this season when scoring at least three goals, and 25-4-1 when leading after the first period, 32-0-2 when leading after two periods. Colorado is 34-3-4 when scoring first (.829).
» Cody McLeod’s first-period score was the Avs’ third shorthanded goal this season and first since Dec. 19 (Maxime Talbot vs. Edmonton). Alex Tanguay also scored with the Avs down a man at Washington on Oct. 12.
» The Avs improved to 26-4-6 in one-goal games, the best winning percentage in the NHL (.722). Colorado's 25 one-goal wins are also a league high.
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