The Colorado Avalanche are winning a lot of hockey games lately. They have posted a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 which any team would be happy to take. They have hung on to the lead in the Central with both Dallas and Winnipeg hot on their heels. Still, the feeling among many fans remains laden with unease. The latest four-game win streak is a perfect example of this paradox where somehow wins don't feel good. But perhaps by taking a closer look at the games, I can make the case that this is just what the Avalanche need to experience if they are going to contend for another cup.
Starting with the game against the Blues last Friday which ended in a narrow 2-1 victory, the Avs did not look to have their stuff offensively. It was even noted here on MHS that this was not championship-level play. Passing did not look crisp and the Avs were out-shot by St. Louis. Even more vexing, not only did Nathan MacKinnon's point streak get snapped that game, but Mack committed a real head-scratcher of a turnover to gift Robert Thomas with a breakaway goal. Thankfully, Alexandar Georgiev was perfect in net otherwise and the Avalanche skated away with two big points. It hasn't been the case so much lately, but against St. Louis, Georgiev stole one for the Avalanche.
Then came the New Year's Eve game against San Jose, statistically the NHL's worst club (9-27-3). A 3-1 result that felt like the team was still mired in the mud. Even with the Avalanche dominating possession all game, the win felt like it was up in the air for most of the contest. What I'll remember from the night was that it featured Samuel Girard's long-awaited return to the lineup. Prior to that start Sammy G was remarkably candid about his time in the league's Player Assistance Program and said he " feels like a new person ". All of us here at Mile High Sticking not only applaud Sam's commitment to healing, that goes without saying - but he is also absolutely pivotal to the team's overall defense. A lengthy absence proved that much. Cale Makar has also needed rest for some nagging issues and that isn't the end of the list of health concerns for D-men.
The third win came in a back and forth thriller vs the Islanders that ended 5-4 after an OT rocket from MacKinnon. In that game, Alexandar Georgiev struggled mightily. Georgiev surrendered 4 goals on just 22 shots on goal for a woeful .818 save percentage. Yet at the same time the Avs‘ primary net-minder became the first goalie to reach 20 wins this season. It is apparent that the Avalanche will need more from #40 if they want to win it all. Hockey is blessedly a team game - and just as a goalie can sometimes bailout a sluggish offense, a uniquely self-possessed goal scorer like Nathan MacKinnon can also save the day.
Last night's divisional showdown in Dallas was yet another case in point to greatness of Nate, who was just named an all-star. But before we even got to his second-straight OT winner, there were additional obstacles to overcome. Miscues by Colorado in their own end directly led to the early deficit. The kind of unlucky lapse in the defensive zone that is frankly much too common for a team of the Avs‘ caliber. Add to that a four-minute double minor being called on a high-stick that did not appear to draw blood leading to another tally. When the refs stopped play there for review I thought for sure they were going to call a matching tripping penalty or at least knock the infraction down to a two minute minor. The encouraging things that seemed to turn momentum in Colorado's favor were inspired play by two off-season acquisitions in Miles Wood and Jonathan Drouin. Wood started the day by missing morning skate with an illness and ended up playing quite possibly his best game of the season. Miles was flying out there and that speed and attitude led to him drawing penalties on Dallas twice. Jonathan Drouin meanwhile matched his bestie Nathan MacKinnon with a pair of goals to help bring the Avs back. I am sure that most Avs fans were salivating over the beautiful overtime winner - but arguably it was depth guys putting in work that made the difference in Dallas.
The Avalanche still have plenty of questions to answer moving into the most active part of the schedule. Bowen Byram going out late last night with a lower body injury is just the most recent in the aforementioned defensive health problem. Georgiev is battling through something that it seems coach Bednar believes will only be solved through playing as much as possible. For now the team is having to adapt game-to-game and figure out how to keep winning despite a variety of issues. The bright side of it all is obvious. The Avalanche find ways to win games even when they aren't firing on all cylinders. No matter how ugly, a win is still a win and working out the kinks in January is a lot better than having to do so during the playoffs.