What We Learned: Avalanche – Ducks

Last night, the Avalanche kicked off the regular season with a dominating home win over the Anaheim Ducks. Admittedly, my predictions were very wrong but I’m okay with that in this instance.

Though the Ducks may disagree, the game was exciting from start to finish and the fans were on their feet cheering loudly. It’ll be interesting to see if this is the Avalanche team we’ll get all year or if this was simply a case of them getting up for the first game.

In any event, here’s what we learned from their 6-1 win on Wednesday night.

The Defense Still Has Questions

This surprises no one. I, like most, thought things were questionable before “longshots” Nate Guenin and Andre Benoit debuted. And sure, the score for Anaheim only read one but that was more to the credit of Semyon Varlamov (more on that later).

Oct 2, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Anaheim Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf (15) tries to score as Colorado Avalanche defensemen Erik Johnson (6) and Jan Hejda (8) defend during the first period at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The defense was sloppy. Early on, and several times as the game went on, Duck forwards found themselves alone in front with good chances only to have the door shut. The defense should buy Varly a beer for that because a lesser performance and this game would’ve gone far differently.

One of the glaring issues seemed to be when the action moved below the goal line. More than a few times, the puck would end up behind the net with both defenders watching it instead of worrying about their assignment, resulting in great chances for the Ducks. I may not be a pro, but I know that since I was a Squirt, they’ve taught me to not watch the puck, keep an eye on my guy, and keep my head swiveling. You’d think as pros, this would be ingrained in their heads but it looks like there’s some work to be done in that area.

Lastly regarding the defense, they looked a little out of place. Erik Johnson and Jan Hejda, the top pairing, looked generally solid for the most part and I have little in the way of complaints about their performances. But after that, it looked dicey. Guys were routinely out of place, drifting too high or too low without much of a reason and didn’t do a very good job of keeping Varly clean until well after the whistle. I understand the offense is going to be good, but if they want to keep winning games the defense has to shore up issues like this.

Oh, and someone needs to be physical in this group. If you’re not going to be positionally sound or a big threat offensively, maybe try mashing a few people. Do SOMETHING to justify your existence.

I Was Wrong About Nathan MacKinnon

So very wrong. One of my silly predictions was that MacKinnon would be coddled and not given a real chance to get his nose dirty, finishing with less than 10 minutes in ice time. He didn’t crush that, but 15:31 isn’t a bad showing for a third-line center in his professional debut.

Beyond the TOI, he looked like he belonged. He flashed his world-class skating and speed, seemingly turning it on and off like he was flipping a switch. Perhaps even more surprisingly, if you’d only read the scouting reports and didn’t see him play in Halifax, he got to the front of the net and battled. He had a scrum in the second period with Ben Lovejoy where he took his lumps, fought for position, and then responded to Lovejoy’s shots with a few of his own. Seeing that your 18-year-old future franchise center isn’t afraid to get into it has to be reassuring.

Last thing regarding MacKinnon: that line looked good. He skated with PA Parenteau and Jamie McGinn on his wings; the group combined for a 2-3-5 line on the night with MacKinnon picking up a pair of assists in his debut including a beautiful dish to McGinn in the second period for his first career NHL point. Mack and McGinn provided the speed, McGinn provided the physical presence, and Parenteau is the calm vet directing it all. Seeing the way that third line played, the Avs are far more stacked than even I thought and if they get this sort of effort out of these three (obviously not scoring like that but with that effort), this Avalanche team is going to shock some people.

Varlamov Looked Like the Real Deal

Holy shnikes was he on. As I mentioned above, the defense was still pretty shaky at times during the game and Varly had to bail them out in epic fashion. He made a few ridiculous glove saves that I’m still not sure how he managed to get in front of.

Oct 2, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (1) and left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) celebrate after the game against the Anaheim Ducks at the Pepsi Center. The Avalanche won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

He looked like an absolutely dominant goaltender, taking control and shutting down the Ducks. At one point, former Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry had himself a wide open look in the slot only to be shut down by Varlamov. He sat there on his knees and looked upward. That was the general feeling the Ducks were left with throughout the night.

Varlamov looked excellent laterally, moving from side to side with ease and having a fantastic awareness of where the puck was and where it would be. There were more than a few times the play moved behind him only to have the puck suddenly appear in front of him on the stick of an open Duck. Even the best goalies would have let one of those in but Varlamov shut the door emphatically each time. Watching the game, he left me mumbling “great stop” more than a few times and I’m sure he left Duck fans with their head in their hands.

It’s hard to expect that kind of performance each night given the wide open chances the defense permitted, but if this is the kind of effort and improvement we’re going to see out him this year, Varlamov looks like he’s ready to take that leap and could steal more than a few games for the Avalanche.

This, more than anything else, was the biggest revelation from game one of the season.

Ryan O’Reilly is Due For a Monster Season

ALMOST as impressive as Varlamov’s performance was that of O’Reilly. He kicked it off by intercepting a pass from Francois Beauchemin, breaking in on Viktor Fasth, and beating him to get the Avalanche the early 1-0 lead.

His 19:46 of TOI was second most on the team for the night behind Andre Benoit (22:40) and he flew around causing trouble. He was fast, physical, and in the face of Duck defenders all night long, never leaving them with an easy play.

He’d finish the night with a goal and an assists, six shots, a block, and four takeaways. We all knew he was a solid two-way player, but the rapport he had with Matt Duchene last night? That top line is going to be very, very dangerous. He and Dutchy seemed comfortable switching positions mid-shift, with Dutchy flying down the wing and O’Reilly seamlessly taking over in the middle. That kind of flexibility will cause a lot of headaches for opponents.

All that said, it was a fantastically exciting night for the home team and a wonderful start to the season. They host the Predators on Friday night and the battle of the top prospects (MacKinnon vs Seth Jones) will commence. It should be faaantastic.

Ryan is the editor of Mile High Sticking as well as co-owner of The Farm Club. Follow him on Twitter to talk Avs, Sabres, hockey in general, or to let him know what a yutz he is.

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Topics: 2013-14 Season, Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, Matt Duchene, Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Roy, Ryan O'Reilly, Semyon Varlamov

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