Avs Defy Odds, Continue to Collect Victories
Advanced-metrics critiques founded, but winning is most important stat of all
A Twitter storm buzzed this morning around the Avalanche’s first-place ascension in the Central Division standings despite having a statistical resume unworthy of such a spot.
The Avs left Vancouver last night with a 4-2 win—thanks to a pair of goals from Paul Stastny, a ridiculous dangle-and-score from Tyson Barrie and another world-class performance in net from Semyon Varlamov—and they moved into a tie atop the Central with an all-of-a-sudden struggling St. Louis team.
But if the Stanley Cup Playoffs were to start today, it would be the Avalanche playing one of the two Western Conference wild cards in the first round at Pepsi Center.
The unlikeliness of that statement, when looked at through the lens of expectation that this season started with, is the root of all the upheaval between the “Why Not Us” crowd and those who live and die by statistical measure.
I’ll admit that I’m in the former group, which probably doesn’t surprise you.
I’m employed by the franchise, of course, and I write for this web site, but that’s not why I’m inclined to lean toward those who have no foundation on which to stand other than the most important foundation of all: belief.
"The foundation is changing," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said a couple weeks ago. "And we believe in ourselves."
The Avalanche season-long stats don’t bear out to where it currently sits. Without getting too technical, Colorado ranks seventh in the NHL with a plus-35 goal differential (goals for vs. goals against), and that easily digestible stat is usually an indicator of how a team’s season is playing out and what can be expected of it down the line.
The Boston Bruins, for example, lead the league with a plus-83 differential, and they have the most points (115) of the NHL’s 30 franchises. The Anaheim Ducks are plus-55 (third best) and have the second most points with 112.
The Blues, who have lost four straight to come back to the Central pack, are second in the NHL with a plus-63, and their 111 points is tied with Colorado for the third most.
There are many more expanded metrics that can be used (“Corsi” or “Fenwick,” anyone?), but none paint a picture for the Avalanche and its fans that looks anything like captain Gabriel Landeskog hoisting the Stanley Cup in a couple months.
But all those who have used numbers and analyses to poke holes in the Avs' success have been foreboding a collapse all season that just hasn't come. The Avalanche is 120 regulation minutes from potentially claiming first overall in the Western Conference and having home-ice advantage through the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This a year after finishing at the very bottom of the Western Conference last season.
This entire Avalanche campaign has been about defying the odds and continuing to push forward, and belief--that unmeasurable stat held onto ever so tightly by the Avs and their fans--has led the charge.
Injuries? No big deal.
Potential off-the-ice distractions? Didn’t even register a blip.
A thought-to-be-insurmountable nine-point divisional deficit with less than a month to go in the regular season? The Avalanche (52-21-7) just responded with its current and season-long nine-game points streak that moved it past its 2000-01 Stanley Cup-winning counterparts for the winningest team in franchise history.
“I’m happy that I’m part of it as a coach, I guess,” said Roy, who, of course, was a goaltender on that team. “The records are there to be broken, and that’s what our guys have done. They deserve a lot of credit, the way they’ve been playing since the start of the season.
“You’re not achieving these things without being consistent, and that’s what our team has been."
Roy’s father, Michel, wrote a much discussed and many-times purchased biography on his son in 2007 entitled “Le Guerrier” (The Warrior) for its initial French publishing and “Winning, Nothing Else” a year later in an English-translation version.
If you’re in the stats-obsessed crowd and absolutely must have a tangible reason why the Avalanche this season continues to claim victories when all the numbers say it shouldn't the easy and obvious choice is its leader, who returned to the franchise this past offseason and is working his magic again.
Roy has long been known for his prodigious goaltending talent, and his temper, at times, has flared and garnered much attention. But the man just wins, brushing aside Mr. Corsi and Mr. Fenwick like any of his near-22,000 career saves.
Take last night’s victory against Vancouver, for example. The Canucks outshot the Avs 40-28 overall, including letting 20 shots fly in the final period, and Vancouver also had 14 shots blocked.
The Avalanche allowed 54 shots in the general direction of goalie Semyon Varlamov, but only two made their way through his defenses and into the netting.
“They put a lot of pucks on net, but you have to go with the scoring chances,” Roy said. “How many scoring chances do we give? Tonight maybe we gave a few good ones in the third we’d love to have back, but that’s why I’m telling everybody that Varly should be considered a Hart Trophy candidate.”
Roy himself never won a Hart—it’s been given to a netminder just seven times since 1924—but he has often in the past month petitioned for Varlamov to become the eighth. It’s likely to be awarded to Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, but a strong case can be made for Varlamov, who’s victory last night was his NHL-leading 41st of the season, moving him past his head coach for first place on the franchise’s single-season wins list.
The Avalanche players and Roy have held steadfast all season to a “We are a team” mantra—their belief is founded in that; has been from the beginning of training camp all the way through its travel last night into San Jose—and that all-encompassing direction has led it to the top of the most important competition statistic.
There's been much made about the amount of shots the Avalanche allows, or the lack of a single superstar across its roster, or the lack of experience to be found on a squad overflowing with young and untapped potential.
But it really boils down to "Winning, Nothing else." Just like Michel Roy’s biography on his son. That’s all that really matters, isn’t it?
A victory is the ultimate statistic, and this year's Avs team has claimed more of those than any group has in their franchise history.