The Colorado Avalanche enter Washington to face the Capitals on Monday night just four points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, which is pretty remarkable given it’s the Western Conference and the Avalanche were written off as early as November.
Truth be told, they never were that far off the pace: Five points away from the wild card on Dec. 1, for example. But they just seemed that far off the pace, because the punditry was right and the Avs’ style of hockey that proved successful last year proved unsustainable this season.
And yet here we are, with the Avalanche nearing a postseason slot, because they’re playing that same style and getting bailed out by the same guy.
Semyon Varlamov is 4-1 in January with a 1.97 GAA and a .947 save percentage, good enough for second in the recent NHL player of the week pronouncement. Since returning from injury on Dec. 23, he’s faced 240 shots in eight games, and he’s yielded 16 goals, pitching two shutouts.
"He's been playing really well for us," Roy said of Varlamov. "We're certainly going to try to do adapt our defense around him, try to keep opponents on the outside and try to let him see as many shots as possible. We're a different team than a lot of teams in that we try to protect more. By trying to protect more, we're not pressuring as fast as maybe other teams, and obviously we're going to give more shots than other teams.
"But at the same time, we don't want to give the rebound chances and we don't want to give slot chances as much as possible. If we do a good job allowing Varly to see pucks, then I think he'll deal well with those."
Conversely, the offense is getting going: The Avalanche have scored about their season average in goals per game (2.55) in four of nine games, including their last two victories, one of them a comeback vs. Dallas.
Matt Duchene is heating up: Five points in his last five games.. Erik Johnson’s been ridiculous, with eight goals since Dec. 13.
One deviation from last season's formula: The penalty kill. Colorado was No. 24 in the league last season at 80.7 percent. They're sixth this season at 85.4 percent.
The Avalanche have been pretty great all season on the PK, but especially so with Varlamov healthy recently. He’s faced 43 shots; he’s given up just three goals. They were perfect on the kill in their last three wins, with Varlamov starting each one. The one game he didn’t start since his return? The Chicago Blackhawks scored two power-play goals against Calvin Pickard in a 5-2 win over Colorado.
Varlamov's save percentage last season on the PK: .892. This season: .967.
Once again, we’re confronted by the fact that the Avalanche continue to get dominated in possession but manage to win thanks to Varlamov and their goal-scoring, plus a more effective kill.
Chicago out-possessed them 60.6 percent to 42.5 percent score-adjusted corsi (head here for a better understanding on taking “score effects” into account); Ottawa out-possessed them 64.3 percent to 23.2 percent; Dallas out-possessed them, 55 percent to 34.3 percent. They barely out-possessed the woeful Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 1, 38.5-32.9 percent in score-adjusted corsi.
So once again, the Avalanche aren’t controlling play, are giving up too many shots and are over-reliant on their goaltending to bail them out.
And yet they can move to within two points of a playoff spot if things break their way tonight.