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Colorado Avalanche’s success is unsustainable (Trending Topics)

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy
Avalanche upend Oilers 4-1
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Colorado Avalanche's Paul Stastny (26) and Gabriel Landeskog (92) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during first period NHL hockey action in Edmonton, Alberta, on Tuesday April 8, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jason Franson)

With the so-called hockey analytics movement, such as it is, outlier teams and their fans seem to mostly think theirs is the team that will prove the math wrong.

That what they do to create the appearance of luck is, in fact, a repeatable skill that they're going to be able to churn out forever and ever under this system and with these players.

That what they do is somehow different from the other teams, those that have already failed in much the same way the numbers say they will as well, and therefore it doesn't matter how badly they get outshot or how high their shooting percentage is or how much larger their goaltender inflates his save percentage over his career average.

They're just going to keep winning. Because they're different.

After all, how else does anyone explain how they've done it for this long? Outperforming the numbers over 80 or so games doesn't seem like it should be an easy thing. There's a lot of hockey in five or six months and if the numbers worked, then they'd have stopped winning long before this point, right? The Leafs couldn't do it, yeah? The Wild couldn't do it a few years ago either, could they?

But here stand the Colorado Avalanche and the Anaheim Ducks, and to a lesser extent the Montreal Canadiens, in defiance of the math, asking, "Why then haven't the numbers come for us?"

What these people and teams fail to realize, it seems, is that it's not immediate.

The Wild were run down in less than half a season, but that was exacerbated by the plague of injuries that team suffered. The Leafs, too, might have been able to prolong their lifespan as quote-unquote playoff worthy had Dave Bolland and Jonathan Bernier and a few other guys been able to stay healthy at various points this season. But those trips to the IR are no excuse, because those were always teams playing with fire, and there are very few players indeed who have that great an influence n proceedings by themselves, or even in groups of two or three.

After all, Toronto was probably the worst possession team in the league, from a cumulative standpoint, from the start of the shortened 2013 season to right now, and yet here we are with them only having been eliminated from playoff contention with less than a handful of games remaining in the year. The math isn't always a quick-strike assassin, but like life itself, it levels teams which try to defy it. Live fast, or in this case without the puck, and die young.

It's tough not to be incredulous that the Avalanche are even in a position to win a division with the Blackhawks and Blues, and yet here we are. They're still running, but for how long?

One has to think a playoff date with a healthy, Kane-and-Toews-are-back Chicago ends in a bloodbath, because winning four out of seven games against a team of that quality is one hell of a tall order. Especially if Matt Duchene is still on the shelf.

The Avs, somehow, went 4-1 against them this year, but is that past performance any kind of decent indicator of future results? Well, probably not, because even-strength corsi in those five games was a combined 266-160 in Chicago's favor, or 62.4 percent. Which is so far beyond dominant as to be cartoonish. District Five didn't struggle as much in the first 40 minutes of The Mighty Ducks as the Avs did this season against the Blackhawks, and yet they won four games out of five, because sometimes things go that way and hockey is a funny old game.

A lot of their success this season has been attributed to their new coach, Patrick Roy, because hey he's a legendary goaltender and well-liked figure, and the team immediately turned around under him. It's like none of them have any memory whatsoever of the Joe Sacco-led trip to the playoffs, which itself was made possible only by an outlier of a wonderful 50ish-game goaltending performance from Craig Anderson.

The season, he found to his dismay, is a little longer than 50 or so games, and the Avs were ground from a top team with a little ways to go down to – guess what! – a second-place finish in the division, and were summarily bounced in six playoff games by a deeply superior San Jose Sharks side.

Does no one in Colorado remember this having happened? What about it is different, other than Semyon Varlamov having kept up the game-breaking goaltending for far longer than most would have expected?

I've recently come around to the idea of him being the Vezina winner, because even if this is just a fluke superhero performance (and at .927, a full 10 points higher than his career average, that sure is what it feels like), he at least did it facing the most shots in the league by a wide margin, and across 62 games. Despite that monolithic save percentage, Varlamov's GAA is still north of 2.40 for a reason.

Stop me if you've heard that about any goalies anywhere else in the league, like, oh I don't know, Toronto.

Whether Colorado will have any success in the future, given the way they've played this season, will have to do with the continued maturation of their current talent, a possible overhauling of their defensive systems so their possession numbers aren't ahead of only Edmonton, Toronto, and Buffalo (all, you'll note, not playoff teams), and the ability of Varlamov to keep this up. Some have conjectured that while it's been shown coaches can have little impact on their goaltenders' performance overall, Roy might be an outlier – that word again – because of who he is.

That obviously remains to be seen, because if Varlamov can keep this up then maybe that's Roy's influence and maybe it's his own talent finally coming to the fore; if Roy can do this with someone else in addition to his current starter, then maybe there's reason to believe other NHL teams should be lining up to get legendary goalies to be coaches (it'll start, obviously, in New Jersey) as a means of overcoming whatever other issues their roster may face at any given time.

But again, that's a best-case scenario. That's a scenario in which the Avs are able to defeat close to a decade's worth of math that strongly suggests, and perhaps even insists, that what they're doing is unsustainable. The more likely scenario is what took place a few years back in Sacco's first year. Quick crash-out that's dismissed for any number of reasons, followed by a long summer of optimism and whitewashing of the team's problems because of how good it felt to make the playoffs again, and then a disaster of a season the year following. The numbers, and they're really not all that advanced at all, said that's what would happen then, just like they're saying that's what's going to happen now.

Fighting it, denying it? That's what's happened in a number of notable instances over the years and the world is still waiting for the first of these deniers to be proven right in their opposition. Meanwhile, they're standing up to their necks in evidence, still saying they're different.

But they're the same, and they won't realize it until they're in too deep to do anything about it. Those that come after them might just learn something, but probably not.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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