SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Colorado Avalanche never again want to experience what happened to them in 2006-07.
"We learned the hard way last year," forward Ian Laperriere said.
Colorado appeared all but out of the playoff race in late February, sitting double-digits out of eighth place with only a 29-29-5 record. The Avalanche, who had virtually no margin for error, started winning and just kept on earning points. Amazingly, in earning all but six of a possible 38 points by going 15-2-2, Colorado still finished one point out of the playoffs. The division rival Calgary Flames edged into eighth place by virtue of points (96-95) despite having one fewer victory.
There were the Avalanche – 44-31-7, winners at home and on the road, boasting the West's third-best power play (21.1 percent) and arguably playing as well as any of the conference's eight playoff qualifiers – all dressed up with nowhere to go.
"We got on a roll at the end of last year, but it wasn't good enough," Laperriere said. "We've learned how important those points are. Fortunately we're in a better position."
The Avalanche are in a much better position, despite a ton of midseason adversity. Wednesday night they got goals from Ben Guite, T.J. Hensick and Jeff Finger – no, we're not kidding about those names – to take two points from the San Jose Sharks with a 3-1 victory.
"It's important we experienced what it's like playing down the stretch, playing meaningful games, keeping ourselves in that race until the end last year," head coach Joel Quenneville said. "It created a lot of enthusiasm in the offseason going into the year. It probably did help some of our younger guys. But every game this year, right from the outset, has been challenging. That's always going to be an ongoing battle."
The Avalanche might not have ground to make up, but their standing is tenuous despite jumping from eighth to fifth in the West with their 29th win of the season. Colorado has been hit hard by injury. First it was Joe Sakic, then Ryan Smyth and finally Paul Stastny. It started 31 games ago and has resulted in the team currently playing without its top three offensive stars.
"I think you get a jolt of enthusiasm initially, guys coming in and looking to take advantage of the opportunity," Quenneville said. "Sustaining it is the challenge, and we're in that challenge portion of the process."
Sakic went down first. Sore after a Nov. 30 game in San Jose, the classy veteran of 1,343 career games tried a month of rest, but that didn't help. On Dec. 28 he underwent hernia surgery, and the prognosis was for Sakic to miss eight to 12 weeks. This is an even longer stretch of games (31) than Sakic missed when he was out 18 due to a knee injury in 1997-98.
Sakic, whose 15-year tenure as captain of one franchise is the longest active streak in the league, had seven goals and 22 points in 24 games when his ironman streak of 232 straight games was snapped.
Without Sakic, the Avalanche went 8-5-2 until adversity struck again.
Smyth, a marquee free-agent signing in the offseason, fractured his ankle Dec. 31. He had 11 goals and 28 points in 36 games and was averaging 20:27 of ice time. At the time of his injury, it was estimated Smyth would miss eight weeks of action.
This time, without both Sakic and Smyth, the Avalanche still managed to go 4-3. Not bad. But
wait, it gets worse.
Stastny, the 22-year-old who started his sophomore season with a hat trick on opening night and led the Avs in scoring since, played a game Jan. 15 and got an appendectomy two days later. His prognosis was to miss two to three weeks.
Since losing Stastny to make it a hat trick of lost stars, the Avalanche have managed a 4-3-2 record. All told, Colorado is a very respectable 16-11-4 since the, um, avalanche of injuries struck.
"We're still getting good efforts and good contributions," Quenneville said. "Our power play is starting to get better, which I believe has been key for us all year.
"The room is good, the guys have a lot of excitement going into games, we like the way we're playing, and we're more into a team game than when the season started."
"It's a great compliment to our scouting staff," Laperriere said. "It's paying off right now."
Quenneville said his team has had to take a more patient approach in games, play it close to the vest at even strength and try to capitalize on the power play, which is 4-for-11 in the last three games.
"We’ve scratched and clawed to hang in there, and hopefully we'll be in good position when those guys get back," defenseman Scott Hannan said.
Quenneville was the bearer of potentially good news for the Avs on Wednesday. In addition to expecting Stastny back for Saturday's stop in Vancouver, he said Smyth may return before the end of the month and that Sakic – "champing at the bit" as the coach put it – is progressing well.
"Last year we were way out looking in," Laperriere said. "This year we're battling to keep our heads above water, and hopefully when those guys come back they can help us."