March Madness on Ice! There’s no other way to describe the Colorado Avalanche over the last four games. However, unlike the flashy Disney ripoffs of their own shows, the Avs ice version of March madness may finally be translating into a sustainable product. Of course the burgundy and blue showed us this same high-powered attack last March before a nose-dive to end the season.
The Avalanche retooled it’s roster to start March 2012 with the additions of Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn and took off. For a month, from February 24th to March 22nd, the team rolled, winning ten of fourteen games and making a playoff push for one of the final playoffs seeds. The stretch saw the emergence of Semyon Varlamov in net and secured Gabe Landeskog’s Rookie-of-the-Year season. The Avs had the speed to compete, but the gas ran out of the party bus and the team lost six of its last seven games, missing out on the 8th seed by seven points to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings.
Hope for the Avs future stemmed from this March Madness through the NHL lockout as a padlock holding the Denver Nuggets court over the ice kept fans away from the game until mid-january. Upon the league’s return, Ryan O’Reilly’s holdout and a host of injuries erased that feeling of optimism and replaced it with the annual mediocrity of the Colorado Avalanche.
Fast forward to the current campaign. The Avs have won five games in a row at home, including two thrillers this weekend. The Chicago Blackhawks game received the attention because the Avalanche ended the Hawks 24 game point streak in decisive fashion, but the San Jose Sharks win might have been more impressive. The Avalanche controlled the ice for much of the game against a team that has run Colorado off the ice the last few years with their skill. The overtime goal with 0.3 seconds left on the clock by Matt Duchene displayed a growing will to win by the team.
Matt Duchene has been strong all season, but his March Madness run this year runs parallel to what would be the 22-year old’s senior season in college. Matt Duchene’s buzzer beater was his second goal of the night and sixth point in two games. Duchene is finally turning his raw talent into quantifiable results on the scoreboard. The first line center ranks 15th in league scoring and his line mate P.A. Parenteau ranks 19th. Only two other players in the west join the pair in the top 20; Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks is fifth and Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks is sixth.
The boost seems linked to the return of Ryan O’Reilly. The Avalanche have had four of their five best games since O’Reilly’s return this week against the Detroit Red Wings, the Blackhawks twice and finally the Sharks (the other big game being the win at home against the Nashville Predators). O’Reilly’s hustle and ability to turn the Avs into a team with three scoring lines completely opens their game and hides some of their defensives weakness.
The question is are the Avalanche emerging from the fog of average hockey or is this just another streak before a fall? Obviously, only an Avs rush to the playoffs will be seen as a success, but there is definable hope. The Avs best player, Gabe Landeskog, is not back to form after his concussion. His return to excellence, coupled with continued good goaltending by Varlamov, and the rest of the team continuing to apply offensive pressure could push this team over the edge. Beware of March Madness, but be optimistic about April results.