A year ago at this time, after consecutive road wins at Minnesota and Columbus, the Avalanche was 9-9 under first-year coach Jared Bednar.
Mayor Michael Hancock wasn’t asking aides to start planning the Stanley Cup parade, but the Avalanche was competitive and seemed capable of at least being in the hunt for a playoff spot most of the season — and perhaps even sneak in.
The Avs also were about to begin a five-game homestand, positioning them to get above that point-a-game pace.
The homestand was a complete disaster, with the Avalanche going 0-4-1 and in the final game — a Dec. 3 loss to Dallas — losing defenseman Erik Johnson to a broken fibula. Colorado’s best defenseman was out of the lineup until late February.
And that was just the start as the Avalanche ultimately posted the lowest point total of the shootout era, with 48 points, and the worst record since the expansion Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000.
So, 17 games into the season, the Avalanche sits at 9-7-1 heading into road games at Nashville Saturday and at the new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit Sunday.
The latest win — a 6-3 blasting of the Washington Capitals at home Thursday — was both recovery after three straight losses, including one in overtime and one in regulation at Stockholm against Ottawa, and flashily impressive.
The cast has undergone considerable change, of course, even in the past two weeks in the wake of the Matt Duchene trade. Half the team — maybe even more than that — should be carded by any conscientious mixologist. (With Tyson Jost being sent down to San Antonio, that leaves only one, 19-year-old Samuel Girard, too young to be served. Also, 21-year-old Vladislav Kamenev, who suffered a broken arm against the Capitals in his first game with the Avalanche, will be out a while, and the recalled Dominic Toninato is 23.)
“There are a lot of things that feel different,” said captain Gabe Landeskog, who had his first career hat trick against the Capitals. “It’s something we’ve talked about for a long time, that we’re a different group this year. It’s a different feeling around here and it’s one thing to talk about it, but we have to go out and show it.
“There’s no panic, we’re just kind of trekking along. We’re competitive, and that’s how we’re going to win hockey games. With our youth and enthusiasm, we want to make sure that rubs off on all of us and make sure we’re together with details and focus during the games, for 60-minute efforts.”
After Friday’s optional practice, I asked Bednar about the comparisons to a year ago — exactly a year ago.
“I’m confident we’re more resilient than that,” Bednar said. “I think there were a lot of factors that went into that last year. Part of it was injuries to key guys. So …” — at that point, he tapped the side of the podium — “… knock on wood, that we can stay healthy.
“I think this year, it’s a different mindset. It’s a more determined group, a more mature group, our team’s a lot tighter and I think those are three things that make me believe that we’re different. Also, in looking at the start to our season, everyone has injuries, right? It’s part of the game. We’ve had a lot of them. If you look at the guys we have out and have had out, even though they might not be household names around the league, they’re key guys for us. They’re guys who have played big, important minutes for us. And they’ve been out of the lineup and we’ve still found a way to substitute other guys in or callups from San Antonio have done a good job. . . So all those guys are growing and getting better as we go, so we have a lot more depth than we had last year.”
To back up the point: Injuries aren’t the only reason, but only eight Avalanche players have appeared in all 17 games. Tyson Barrie missed his first game of the season Thursday with an upper body injury.
“This is a completely different feel,” Barrie said after going through the practice. “Obviously, we know what happened last year. I didn’t play the last game, but I can tell the boys are dialed in and Bedsy has us thinking the right way. We’re a focused group in here now and it’s a huge part of the season.
“The weird feeling was playing last year and losing every game. This is nice, this is refreshing. It’s a different group and we’re having fun and when you have the last-place team in the league, you expect turnover and that’s what we got. It’s working for us so far. We’re in the hunt, we’re in the mix and to stay there, we’re going to work hard. We know this is a huge month.”
Center Carl Soderberg is the Avalanche’s elder statesman, at 32, and playing a much stronger overall game than he did in a largely silent 2016-17.
“We’re playing pretty good hockey this year,” he said after practice. “It’s not just points, it’s that we’re playing well. I guess we’re a pretty young team and I’d think when those guys get one more year, we’re going to be a really good team.”
But for now, the Avs will try to keep trekking.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes commentaries about the Avalanche for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
E-mail: [email protected]
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