Bolstered by youth and depth, the Avalanche are in fine form

Saturday November 9th, 2013

Nathan MacKinnon's heady play has belied his status as one of the youngest players in the NHL.
Chris Schneider/AP

DENVER -- Paul Stastny, still in his skates and hockey pants, toddled out into the hallway outside the Avalanche dressing room and stepped in front of the camera. Again, he's called on to do the TV postgame interview, which, players will sometimes admit, can be a chore. But it's not today. And it hasn't been most days this season for the Avalanche, who improved to 13-2-0 with a 4-2 win over Calgary Friday night.

"I love it," the center said through his wide gap-toothed hockey smile.

Two days after a shaky loss to Nashville, Colorado came out determined not to slip, not to lend any credence to the inevitable questions about bouncing back after a loss. They came out wanting to stomp any sign of potential slippage out. And though it was not easy over the course of 60 minutes, against a hard-working Flames team on the tail end of a back-to-back, the Avalanche continued their improbable run, fueled by a speedy and skilled attack.

The Avs have been building a cadre of offensive talent, thanks to dismal seasons and the subsequent high draft picks that come with them. By adding center Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick in last summer's draft, Colorado improved on one of the most talented attacks in the league. That depth has given first-year coach Patrick Roy the luxury of easing MacKinnon in and trying new things with the 18-year-old center. After a game on the right wing against Nashville Wednesday, Roy returned MacKinnon to center, where the youngster seems most comfortable given his playmaking abilities and vision. It paid dividends Friday night, as he looked every bit as at home on the ice as a seasoned vet.

"I thought MacKinnon's line was super tonight," Roy said. "Nate was flying on the ice ... I felt like I wanted to give him more [ice time]. I was very impressed with him tonight."

In the middle of the second, alone behind Calgary's net with the puck on his stick, MacKinnon walked it up and threaded a perfect backhand pass to the tape of John Mitchell, who ripped in his second goal of the season. With time and space, MacKinnon has shown he can do special things. But to be an elite player, he'll have to grow even more.

"This year, we want to build his foundation," Roy said. "We're going to try him in different situations ... We're going to try a lot of things with him and see where he's comfortable or not ... The only place I will promise you he will not play is in goal."

Not that the Avalanche have seemed to need the help in net -- at least not so far. Colorado's goalies, Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere, have allowed the fewest goals in the league. And only twice have they allowed their opponent more than two goals -- Colorado's two losses, incidentally. Friday, Giguere stopped 30 on his way to his fifth win of the season. Like almost everything else with this team, it's a far cry from last season, when the Avalanche averaged 3.13 goals against and a .901 save percentage. It's probably the biggest area of improvement for the Avs, and much credit goes to goaltending coach Francois Allaire, who joined the organization at the behest of Roy last summer.

Allaire's history with both Roy and Giguere made him an obvious choice, but his biggest achievement this season has been vastly improving the game of Varlamov, who last year ranked 42nd with a 3.02 GAA. Through his first 10 games of the season, the 25-year-old goalie is averaging 2.10 in the same category.

"I think [Varlamov] needed to work with a guy that would give him a stronger foundation. Franky's done that for him," the 16-year veteran Giguere says. "He's simplified his game. He focuses on maybe 10 different things instead of 50 different things."

That's on the ice. Off of it, things have been much harder as of late for the goalie, who stands accused of drunkenly assaulting his girlfriend last week. Varlamov has made two starts since his arrest -- an overtime win and Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the Predators -- and is expected to man the net again Sunday against his former team, the Washington Capitals. His next court date is Thursday, Nov. 14. Although his personal world turbulently swirls around him at the moment, he's trying not to bring that world to his work.

"Sometimes the best medication is to get back in your comfort zone," Stastny says. "When we're all on the ice, all wearing our jerseys in practice or a game, we're comfortable."

Friday's win tied the team with the 1994-95 Quebec Nordiques for the best start in franchise history, so it's obvious that on the ice, the Avalanche are comfortable indeed.

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