In the lockout-shortened, 2013 season, the Colorado Avalanche were nothing short of a laughingstock. Finishing at the bottom of the Western Conference, and only three points ahead of the Florida Panthers league-wide, the Avalanche were simply unable to gain any traction all season long.
Of course, as Montreal Canadiens fans will remember, sometimes a team with some talent suffers injuries, is mismanaged, and doesn't get the bounces. That can lead to poor results, but also to favourable draft position. This was the culmination of Colorado's most recent season, as they were granted the luxury of the first overall pick in the 2013 draft.
Before spending that pick, the Avs began to make some other changes. President Pierre Lacroix stepped down, to be replaced on the business side by the son of the owner of the Colorado franchise, Josh Kroenke. With Kroenke on board, the Avalanche cleaned house somewhat. They fired head coach Joe Sacco, but not, for some reason, General Manager Greg Sherman. Next, emulating the Broncos model of Denver sports management, the Avalanche reached out to a franchise legend to guide the team back to success. Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Sakic accepted the task, and was named executive VP of Hockey Operations. Finally, Colorado found another legendary player to add to their hockey ops team, naming Patrick Roy head coach.
With a career that left him as quite likely the best NHL goalie of all time, and a few years of experience as a coach in the QMJHL, Roy was primed to be an NHL coaching candidate for some time. When passed over in Montreal's selection process one year prior, Saint Patrick moved on to the other team for which he played during his illustrious career.
With the top of the house in order, the Avalanche moved on to their on-ice product. Colorado, perhaps envisioning another Sakic, announced the selection of Nathan Mackinnon, hoping to pair him with other recent talented draft picks to create the type of forward corps that pushed the Avs toward the cup in the early 2000s.
In his 19-year-old rookie season, Mackinnon acts a third line centre for Colorado, most often between Jamie McGinn and P.A. Parenteau. Mackinnon has struggled somewhat in the possession department, posting poor numbers despite relatively sheltered zone starts and competition, but anyone who watched Alex Galchenyuk play last season can tell you that expecting a 19-year-old rookie to be impactful at centre in the NHL is pretty well unreasonable. His presence on the third line with two talented players gives the Avalanche three groups capable of putting the puck in the net, and improved depth is one part of their resurgence so far this year.
The other, most significant aspect of the resurgence the Avs is the play of their goaltenders. After struggling mightily last year, Semyon Varlamov has cut his goals against average by half, while posting an exceptional .944 save percentage. Back-up Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who struggled himself last season, has been out-of-his-mind so far this year, posting two shutouts in his first three starts. While it's difficult to quantify exactly how much of this is attributable to the presence of Roy and goaltending coach Francois Allaire, teammates have been quick to acknowledge Varlamov's evolution and Giguere's return to the form of earlier in his career.
With Varlamov playing in Colorado's win over Dallas last night, the Habs can count on seeing Giguere in the opposite crease this evening. In his career against Montreal, Giguere has a 7-3-1 record with a .913 save percentage. Giguere has allowed only two goals in his three starts this season, a figure that the Habs will seek to multiply.
If Montreal is to do that, their best chance is likely to exploit Colorado's weak defence. Behind former first overall pick Erik Johnson, the Avalanche lack depth on their back-end. While the possession performance of Johnson and partner Jan Hejda is somewhat excusable, given their defensive deployment and tough assignments, Colorado's four other defenders can't use the same alibi for putting undue stress on Varlamov and Giguere. With Max Pacioretty back in the lineup, and the Habs ability to roll three solid scoring lines restored, Montreal should be able to put pressure on the Avalanche.
With Pacioretty in the lineup, and Parros having returned yesterday, Montreal is approaching full strength. Brandon Prust, Travis Moen and Daniel Briere, along with Davis Drewiske and Alexei Emelin, are still unavailable, but as long as Patches is back, Montreal is better off than they've been in a couple of weeks. Colorado is basically injury free, with only Jamie McGinn a potential concern. McGinn missed last night's game with a knee injury, and is questionable tonight.
For a preview from the opposing perspective, and details of Colorado's recent Steve Downie- Max Talbot swap, head up to Mile High Hockey.
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