The Avalanche was nine points behind Central Division-leading St. Louis at the end of the day Tuesday, March 25. Wins that night by the Blues, second-place Chicago and the Avs in Nashville had Colorado in third with 96 points, compared to the Blackhawks’ 99 and St. Louis’ 105.
The Avalanche’s rough-and-tumble, 4-0 victory yesterday against St. Louis, however, paired with Chicago’s home victory earlier this afternoon against the Blues, has tightened things considerably.
The Avs (50-21-6, 106 points) are riding a season long-tying six-game win streak and can pull within three points of the division lead with a victory against Pittsburgh tonight at Pepsi Center.
Colorado has already clinched a playoffs berth for the first time in four seasons, but catching St. Louis (52-19-7, 111) and holding off Chicago (45-19-15, 105) to win a division title for the 11th time in Avalanche/Nordiques history and for the first time since 2003 has now become very much in play.
If nothing else, a victory tonight would continue the Avs’ momentum as they wrap up their regular-season home schedule before heading off on a regular season-ending four-game road trip to Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose and Anaheim.
“Our confidence is really high right now,” defenseman Tyson Barrie said. “We’ve been pretty confident—all year we’ve been pretty confident—but the last few weeks, for sure. These last six games we’ve played some really good hockey. We like where our team is headed going into the playoffs, and we’re excited to get that going.”
“We want to get home ice [in the playoffs}, whether we catch St. Louis or whether we beat Chicago,” said Paul Stastny, who had a goal and two assists yesterday vs. the Blues. “We just want to keep playing [well], keep playing better once playoffs hit. For us, we’ve already forgotten about yesterday, and we’ve got a tough challenge ahead of us today.”
Stastny speaks the truth.
Pittsburgh (49-24-5) is stinging after a 4-0 loss at Minnesota last night and has lost two of three but has already won the Metropolitan Division and is locked into the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Penguins, of course, are led by Sidney Crosby, who leads the NHL with 102 points after having reached the century mark in scoring for the fifth time in his career.
“Pittsburgh’s a team with a lot of pride,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “Nobody likes to lose. When you lose a game, you expect them to bounce back. Every game means something to any player, and they don’t like to lose a game. I expect them to play a hard game. Crosby is the best player in our league for a reason, and he’s certainly not going to be happy with what happened yesterday.”
A 2-0 loss to the Bruins on Friday, March 21 was the Avs’ first shutout loss of the season and their fourth defeat in five games. This season has represented a rebirth for the franchise, but if one was looking for a rock-bottom scene, it was in the Avalanche dressing room that night at Pepsi Center.
The Avalanche hasn’t lost since, though, running through its schedule with the, “Stanley Cup attitude,” Roy promised before the season even began.
“We knew we had to approach every game like a playoff game if we wanted to make the playoffs,” he said this morning. “We had to remain even keel, we had to remain humble. We know how tough our conference is. … We were 14-2 [and] we were not even first in our conference. Just to show you how tough this conference is. Losing four, five, six, seven games in a row? You’re clicking fingers. We had to approach every game as a playoff game, and that’s what our guys have done.”
Semyon Varlamov stopped all 31 shots yesterday in St. Louis to earn his 40th victory of the year, tying Roy's franchise record for most wins in a single season. With a home win against the Rangers on Thursday night he won his 24th game this season in Denver (24-9-3), matching another of Roy’s franchise marks.
A victory against the Penguins would move the Avalanche goaltender past his coach in a pair of significant all-time franchise categories.
Roy, a 2006 NHL Hall of Famer, has mentioned a few times in the past week his thoughts on Varlamov being considered for this year’s Hart Trophy, given by the NHL, “to the player judged to be the most valuable to his team.” He was asked this morning to expand upon his case, and as he spoke he said Varly, “is our Hart … Trophy winner.”
The pause seemed accidental, but a strong case could be made that Varlamov has been the Avalanche’s “heart” this season, too.
Varlamov is the first NHL goaltender to reach 40 wins this year, and he also leads the league in saves (1799). He ranks fourth in save percentage (.927) and is 7-1-1 when facing 40 or more shots this season and 6-0-1 when making 40-plus saves. He is 24-6-1 in his last 31 starts.
“What impresses me a lot—and I know I repeat myself—is how he came in [this season],” Roy said. “The commitment he made in the summer to be ready for this year; the commitment he makes every time he steps on the ice—that’s why I think he should win the Hart Trophy.
“You’re looking at our team, you’re looking at how this team has performed since the start of the season, it would be impossible without the play of our goaltenders. Jiggy (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) was outstanding early in the season—he had great moments before the Olympics—but Varly, from the start, he was consistent. I can’t say he’s had more than a couple bad games.”
» The Avs’ victory yesterday against St. Louis made it the only team in the NHL to notch a victory against all other 29 teams.
“It’s speaks for the quality of our year,” Roy said. “We play well against everybody. We showed a lot of consistency all year long, and it shows that we did a lot of good things out there.”
» The Avalanche’s current six-game run is the longest current streak in the league and matches its streaks from Oct. 2 to 15 and Oct. 19 to Nov. 2. Each of the first five wins during this streak has came by one goal, marking the first time in franchise history that the Avs won five consecutive games by a one-goal margin.
» The Avs have reached 50 wins for only the second time in franchise history.
MOST WINS FRANCHISE HISTORY
52 -- 2000-01
50 -- 2013-14
49 -- 1996-97
47 -- 1995-96
47 -- 1992-93
» The Avalanche have dubbed tonight’s game “Fan Appreciation Night” at Pepsi Center, and the first 10,000 through the doors will receive a limited-edition 2013-14 Avalanche team photo poster. A special season-recap video will also be played on Pepsi Vision.
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