Monday, December 5, 2011
In mid November, the Colorado Avalanche embarked on an 8-game homestand, the longest in team history. The Avs started it with an underwhelming 2-3 record and all signs were pointing to continued home struggles for the Burgundy and Blue. However, in large part due to the player nicknamed "Factor," the Avs rattled off three straight wins to conclude the home stretch. This three-game winning streak the Avs are riding is the team's longest winning streak since their five-game streak back in October and the first time all season the team has won more than one consecutive game at home.
How good has Ryan O'Reilly been of late? Over the past three games, Factor has scored 4 goals, 3 assists, and is a plus-7. This does not even include the shootout game-winner against St. Louis. He has also earned the #1 start of the game the past two games and was the #2 star the game before that. This is by and large the best offensive strech of O'Reilly's young career. Quite often, phrases like "wise beyond his years," "rink rat," and "work ethic" are used to describe the 20-year-old centerman. Matt Duchene was the Avs' prize of the 2009 draft, after being taken 3rd overall and he has lived up to his billing. He is by far the Avs' flashiest player and is very explosive and creative with the puck. Duchene is the guy who is going to put up highlight reel goals for years to come.
With the 32nd pick of the 2009 NHL Draft, the Detroit Red Wings select...Landon Ferraro. With that, the Avs management excitedly went to the podium and selected the player they were hoping would still be available. While Duchene came into camp with a pretty good chance at making the team, especially after the retirement of longtime captain and top center, Joe Sakic, pretty much no one expected the 2nd round pick to stick with the big club. In fact, O'Reilly was the first non-first rounder to immediately make the jump to the NHL since Patrice Bergeron did it with the Bruins in 2003.
Throughout his first two NHL seasons, O'Reilly became known as a hard-working penalty killing center and a solid defensive forward. However, this year, he has spent the majority of his time on a line with 2011's 2nd overall pick, Gabriel Landeskog and recently received new captain Milan Hejduk on his right wing. O'Reilly has used these new weapons to flex his offensive muscles and has already accumulated 21 points in 27 games. In each of his first two seasons, O'Reilly posted 26 points in 81 and 74 games respectively. Needless to say, Factor is on pace to clearly surpass his previous season's offensive output, probably even before Christmas.
O'Reilly experienced a very scary moment last season, in which he lost an edge and went what appeared to be head first into the boards very hard. Very fortunately, O'Reilly only experienced a shoulder injury that just kept him out a couple of weeks. You certainly never like seeing a guy being taken off the ice on a stretcher, especially a 19-year-old kid whose whole career is in front of him. There are plenty of cases in the NHL and sports regarding head and neck injuries and Factor is very lucky that he avoided this!
Can Factor keep up this fervent pace? Probably not. It is unrealistic to expect any player to continue scoring at over a 2 PPG pace, but O'Reilly's hard work, new-found confidence, and inspired teammates will certainly provide him with opportunities to continue to succeed. Factor may not be the most talented player in the NHL or even on the Avs, but his passion for the game is quickly becoming legend and his leadership despite his young age have many people in Avalanche Country calling for him to wear the "C" when Milan Hejduk hangs them up. Paul Stastny suffered a torso injury last night and if he misses any time, O'Reilly will be counted on to continue to produce like a top center. Over in the Eastern Conference, the Pittsburgh Penguins' top stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both missed significant time in 2011, but the Penguins were able to stay competitive due to the emergence of their "3rd line" center, Jordan Staal. While Staal certainly differs from O'Reilly in size and probably overall skill (Staal was a #2 overall pick), they are both centers who can be the next great 2-way players in the game. Do not be surprised to see both these names being talked about for the Selke in the near future.
I would also be remiss if I did not mention the play of Semyon Varlamov. As I've mentioned before, he is probably the most scrutinized player on the Avs roster, as goalies often are. Varly, by no fault of his own, also carries the burden of the eventual 1st round pick the Caps will receive. With Giggy's three straight starts, there was talk of him usurping the #1 job from Varly. However, once Varly got his shot to get back between the pipes, his play has been stellar. He has allowed 2 goals or fewer in 6 straight games and has given the Avs a chance to win in all of these games. His save % has risen and his GAA has fallen. While I am still of the mindset that the Avs should employ a full-time goalie coach for the the 23-year-old Russian, Varly certainly seems to be playing with confidence now.
Finally, with these three consecutive wins in the books, the Avs cannot take their foot off the gas as we have so frustratingly seen them do too many times so far this season. Right now, we are exactly a .500 team and sit in 12th place in the Western Conference. However, with 27 points, we are only 2 points behind the teams tied for 8th place. One more win and the Avs will be right back in the playoff picture. Three divisional road games coming up. Yeah, it's only early December, but consistency and momentum are certainly things this young team needs to keep up.