The 2011-2012 Colorado Avalanche officially have two games in the books. They are a respectable 1-1-0 after facing two formidable opponents. Last Saturday's game was a very emotional one with the retirement ceremony of Peter Forsberg, the tribute to the fallen Avalanche players, and of course playing against an old rival in Detroit. Unfortunately, the Avs could not manage to get a win, let alone a goal on Saturday night, but there were still several positives to take away from the 3-0 loss. First of all, Semyon Varlamov was strong. He earned himself the 3rd star of the game and stopped 36 of 38 shots. Both goals that beat him were rockets that resulted from defensive giveaways by McClement and Hejda respectively. Certainly not soft goals on Varly's part. The team skated well. The Avs seemed to have the momentum early in the game, but were stymied by goalie Ty Conkin and then hampered by some trips to the penalty box. To give credit where it's due, Conklin played a good game. When the Avs go up against backup goalies getting a spot-start, they always seem to play well. Whether it's the Conklins, Rasks, Clemmensons, or Schneiders, those guys always seem to bring their A-game against the Avs. Another positive from Saturday's loss was the play of Gabriel Landeskog. I'm sure there were nerves and butterflies before his first ever NHL game on the night his boyhood idol's number was retired, but judging by his play, it was not evident. Landeskog looked strong, played hard, and was probably the most effective forward the Avs had all night. He tied Paul Stastny with 5 shots on goal and leads the team through two games with 10. He also had 3 hits against Detroit and tallied another 2 against Boston. While he hasn't recorded a point yet, he no doubt will soon. He has skated very well with linemates Ryan O'Reilly and Daniel Winnik.
Yesterday, Varlamov backstopped the Avs to a 1-0 shutout victory. Varly stopped all 30 shots he faced including robbing Bruins players on several occasions. The best one came with about 5 minutes left in the 3rd. A well-played 2-1 gave Milan Lucic a seemingly open net, but Varly slid across and got his blocker on the shot. Duchene later tweeted that it was the best save he's ever seen Varly make. I agree. Speaking of Duchene, he did his best to preserve Varlamov's shutout by sliding in and making a great block when Varly fumbled the puck behind the net. Duchene really looks like he's maturing into a 2-way center and complete player. Milan Hejduk got the game's lone goal with assists from newcomer Jan Hejda and Duchene.
The defense looks a lot bigger, stronger, and better than last year. A year ago, Sacco and Sherman fell in love with undersized, puck-moving defensemen. The top six included John-Michael Liles, Kyle Cumiskey, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Matt Hunwick. Aside from Hunwick, who has been a healthy scratch for the first two games, those guys are all gone. The Avs added size to the d-corps with the Erik Johnson trade last season and signing defensemen Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien. Ironically, the only puck-moving defensemen the Avs have now, were sent to Lake Erie during the preseason. However, Elliott for sure and Barrie likely will get their shots this season. Varly and Giggy should benefit from this revamped defensive corps more than Anderson, Budaj, and Elliott did last year.
On the downside of course, the Avs have only scored one goal in two games. This obviously has to change if the Avs are going to find success this year. Varlamov cannot be relied upon as heavily as he has been the first couple of games. He will need some offensive support to continue to thrive. Like I mentioned, Landy has looked very strong and the 3rd line has played very well. Both top centers have skated well too. Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny have both hit posts and generated chances for themselves and their linemates. Hejduk is his reliable self, but the other wingers need to step up and help their centers. Peter Mueller is still trying to get his legs and timing back after missing all of last year. It'll come. David Jones and Chuck Kobasew have not provided Stastny with the offensive support you need from your top wingers. The problem with the Avs top two lines is that there is just not enough strength. While there is plenty of skill, none of the top six forwards are power forwards who will get down low and grind out the ugly goals. The Mueller-Duchene-Hejduk line looked good in camp and preseason and will be very effective once Muells gets his timing back. Stastny and Jones have developed chemistry in the past, but Kobasew doesn't add a whole lot here. Put Landeskog with these guys because he can be that guy who will get down low and get rebound goals and screen goalies. With his and Stastny's combined 19 shots through two games, we could see a spark.
Unfortunately, the Avs game vs. Columbus is not on TV tomorrow night due to some lame Vs. contractual rule, so I'll just have to listen to Mose's call on the radio. Jan Hejda will face his former team for the first time, but probably will not receive the same negative ovation that Adam Foote did for years. Columbus is 0-3 so far, so they will be angry and hungry for a win. Another good road test for the young Avalanche team. On Thursday, the Avs will travel north of the border to Ottawa to face former netminder Craig Anderson and the Ottawa Senators. After a brilliant 2009-10 season, Anderson was supposed to be the Avs' goalie of the future. However, after a rough start to last year and failed contract negotiations, Anderson was shipped to the Sens and now the Avs are banking on Varly. We could also see the regular season Colorado Avalanche debut of veteran goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, as Sacco will likly give Varly a night off during the back-to-back set.