Oct 8, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Colorado Avalanche defenseman Andre Benoit (61) congratulates goaltender Semyon Varlamov (1) after a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Colorado defeated Toronto 2-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

What We Learned: Avalanche - Leafs

The Avalanche improved to 3-0 last night. Pretty nice, but not necessarily a huge deal, right?

Well consider the last time the franchise started 3-0: Peter Forsberg, one of the greatest players in the history of the franchise, was a rookie. Head coach Patrick Roy was not only still an active player but he was still a Montreal Canadien. Oh yeah, the last time the franchise was 3-0, they were still the Quebec Nordiques.

How is that possible? How did all of those super talented Colorado teams, featuring Forsberg, Roy, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Milan Hejduk, etc, fail to start 3-0 even once?

Anyways, here’s what we learned from last night’s 2-1 victory over the Leafs.

Varlamov is Going to Have a Monster Year

He was outstanding through the first two games, facing plenty of shots and just as many good scoring chances. The Avalanche looked impressive but clearly would have had a much more difficult time if Varly wasn’t on his game.

Last night, though he didn’t need to be quite as spectacular as often, he came through when it was required of him. Hell, the only goal he allowed was a bit fluky: he’d made the initial save and was laying on the puck only to have it squirt loose and end up in the net when he was joined by a teammate and two Leafs in the crease.

All in all, Varlamov stopped 27 of 28 shots (it surprised me that the Leafs had that many, honestly) and only had to make a few frantic saves. Everything else looked routine and Varlamov looked calm and collected turning them aside.

The Avalanche could surprise this year and if they do, it’ll be because of the play of Varlamov. He’s hitting his physical prime. Not only does he have famed goaltending coach Francois Allaire in his corner, but his head coach is arguably the greatest netminder ever. And he’s determined to prove he’s a franchise goalie.

So far, so good for Varly.

The Avs Might Have The Best Third Line in Hockey

The one thing that’s noticeable about the Avalanche this season is that they are impressively deep in terms of their forwards. They roll four solid lines, each offering its own presence and role.

But through the first three games, there might not be a better line for the Avalanche right now than the third unit of Jamie McGinn, Nathan MacKinnon, and PA Parenteau.

This group is smart, fast, and aggressive and their efforts are paying dividends early and often. The trio combine last night for the game-winning goal, with MacKinnon causing a turnover that went the other way, ending with the puck bouncing in off of a driving Parenteau’s skates and into the net.

It’s no surprise that through the first three games of the season, the trio is tied for the team lead in points with four apiece. Parenteau leads with three goals and has been the quiet, calm presence on the line. He finds the open spots and gets himself in the right position to make something happen.

McGinn is the energizer of the group. He uses his speed to pressure opponents and he finishes his checks with aplomb. He’s making sure that the opposing defensemen are aware of his presence and looking over their shoulders at all times.

Oct 8, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Colorado Avalanche forward PA Parenteau (15) carries the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. Colorado defeated Toronto 2-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Then there’s the rookie. MacKinnon has four assists through his first three games and has looked far from lost. It’s already clear that he’s on an elite level in terms of skating; he’s shown the ability to turn on the jets at a moment’s notice. He works in unison with the others and shows no fear going into traffic areas to make something happen.

It’s only a matter of time before things flat line a bit – McGinn can’t keep up this pace and MacKinnon will likely hit the rookie wall at some point — but for now, this is the best line in Colorado and the second biggest reason the Avalanche are 3-0.

Jan Hejda Had His Best Game

While there have been plenty of questions about the defense, last night might’ve been their best game as a unit. There’s no “maybe” that it was Hejda’s best.

He’s normally a solid presence defensively and he showed that again last night: hustle in his own end, an active stick, and generally good positioning helped make Varlamov’s night a little easier even if he did have to make 27 saves.

Where he really stood out was at the other end of the ice. Both on the penalty kill and even strength, he showed a knack for making smart pinch after smart pinch, keeping the puck deep in Toronto territory and allowing the Avalanche to have extended possessions with tons of pressure.

Small, sometimes unseen, plays like that are huge for a defenseman and the fact that Hejda was doing the small things to help his forwards keep the pressure on show that Hejda is growing more and more comfortable in the offensive zone. He’s not going to become the next Bobby Orr, but if he can keep pucks in with a greater frequency, the Avalanche will see dividends as their pressure turns into goals.

Oct 8, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene (9) carries the puck against Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Carl Gunnarsson (36) during the third period at the Air Canada Centre. Colorado defeated Toronto 2-1. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Duchene Had His Best Game

Speaking of guys who had their best game: Matt Duchene, come on down!

He didn’t score (he had an assist, though) but Dutchy looked like an explosive franchise center for a good chunk of last night’s game and it’s only a matter of time before he begins to contribute on a consistent basis.

In 19:39 on ice time, he took four shots and had three hits. More importantly: he won 72% of his faceoffs, looking far and away like the best faceoff man on the ice. Not only that, but he was flying all over the ice, flashing his dazzling speed and hands, creating chances for himself and others.

It might not happen in the next game, but Duchene is primed for a big season and his play so far has been dynamite despite the lack of stats to show it.

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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Tags: 2013-14 Season Colorado Avalanche Matt Duchene Nathan MacKinnon Semyon Varlamov Toronto Maple Leafs

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