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Defense Keys Colorado's Perfect Start

For all the success they’ve enjoyed as an NHL franchise, the Colorado Avalanche has a chance to do something it has done only once before tonight against the Detroit Red Wings:

Start a season 7-0.

If we’re being literal, a 7-0 start would be a first in Colorado Avalanche history; the other time the franchise started 7-0 was 1985-86, when it was still the Quebec Nordiques. Regardless, a win would match the best start in franchise history, and it would come against a team that head coach Patrick Roy played many fierce postseason series’ against.

“They were great battles at the time,” Roy said. “But we don’t look at ourselves as being in their position.”

And why would they? The Red Wings are the model franchise in perhaps all of professional sports. They have made the playoffs in 22 straight seasons. The Avalanche, on the other hand, hasn’t qualified for the playoffs the past three seasons and is coming off a year in which they had the No. 1 overall pick.

Despite that, Colorado is among the hottest teams in the league. Its 6-0 start matches San Jose for tops in the Western Conference, and its 12 points are tied with the Sharks and Toronto (6-1) for most in the league.

A huge reason for that is defense. 

In those six games, Colorado has allowed six goals. Even with other strong defenses around the league, that is half a goal per game fewer than any other team.

After a very pedestrian start to his Colorado career, goalie Semyon Varlamov is playing up to the potential the Colorado management saw when it traded a first and second round pick to Washington to acquire him in July 2011. He has a 1.20 goals-against average and a .965 save percent in five starts. Backup J.S. Giguere posted a shutout in his only start of the season.

 

A just as significant reason for the defensive turnaround has been the play of the defensemen. Much maligned the past couple of seasons, Colorado’s defensive corps is playing with confidence and continuity — five defensemen have played in each of Colorado’s six games.

“We’ve been playing solid, but I think you have to look at the two guys who have been playing in net for us,” said Nate Guenin, a Pennsylvania native who has an assist and is plus-1 through six games. “It’s something that we take pride in, playing hard in the [defensive] zone, trying to clear the net. Guys are willing to sacrifice their body and block a lot of shots.”

Guenin perhaps best epitomizes Colorado’s early-season run. Prior to this season, he had played 32 NHL games during a professional career that started in 2006. Now, his play has earned him a regular spot on the blue line.

“It’s meant everything to me. They were up front with me [before the season] and said they’d give me a look in training camp,” Guenin said. “There was a small window there and it was up to me to make the most of it. They’ve continued to put me in situations to show what I can do and help the team, and I’ve very thankful for that.”

For others, like Minnesota-native Erik Johnson, the improvement in the team’s play has been a long time coming.

“The system we’ve been playing has been really good for our club,” said Johnson, who vying for a spot on his second U.S. Olympic Team.

“The past couple of years we were playing as three forward, two defensemen and a goalie, now we’re playing as a group of five every time we step on the ice. We have a collective team mentality when it comes to tracking and defending and it’s really helped us.”

Under former coach Joe Sacco, Colorado was among the worst defensive teams in the league. In his four seasons, the Avalanche finished no higher than 15th in goals allowed per game, and twice finished 27th or lower.

Now, under Roy, defense has become a priority.

“We’re working well as a unit,” he said. “We’re tracking well and back-checking well. If we can cut down on the shots against I think we’ll see a huge improvement.”

Even still, despite the team’s hot start, Roy isn’t allowing his players to get ahead of themselves.

“We have to stay humble, take it one day at a time,” he said. “We have to focus on the things we can control.”

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