By Dave Bruning
Stanley Cup fever has engulfed Denver, like an Avalanche barreling down one of Colorado’s majestic ski slopes. There is nothing like playoff hockey, and after a prolonged absence, the quest for the Cup has returned to Denver.
Head coach Patrick Roy has led the Avalanche on an unexpected and wild ride back to the playoffs. Not only are the Avs back in the playoffs, Colorado won the rugged Central Division, which includes the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the deep and talented St. Louis Blues.
I have to admit I was skeptical about the hiring of Roy as head coach and Joe Sakic as President of hockey operations. While both men are Hall of Fame former Avalanche players, I did not think either had the requisite knowledge and experience to turn the franchise around. I am pleasantly pleased to have been wrong in my assessment.
There are three primary reasons for the resurgence of hockey in Denver: Patrick Roy, the selection of Nathan McKinnon in last year’s draft and the play of goaltender Semyon Varlamov.
Roy’s playing career does not need to be rehashed. I underestimated the almost 10 years he spent coaching in the Quebec Junior League. It obviously served him well. He instilled passion and faith in his team on opening night when he destroyed the plexi-glass divider between benches. Roy was furious with Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau for a late hit on prized rookie McKinnon. The culture of the Avalanche changed in that single moment. Moving forward, Roy has nurtured his young team and gotten the best out of his entire roster, classic signs of quality coaching.
Roy’s fingerprints are all over the selection of McKinnon as the first player in last year’s draft. There was tremendous local pressure to select Seth Jones, a rugged defenseman who had played his formative hockey years in the Denver area. Instead, Colorado added McKinnon to a talented core of offensive players and has not looked back. McKinnon was brought along slowly and we are just beginning to see his immense talent emerge. Roy had coached against McKinnon in the Quebec Juniors, knew what he had in the kid and stood firm on his selection.
The final piece in Colorado’s turnaround can be found between the pipes. Varlamov has been nothing short of a brick wall in goal. He set a franchise record for wins in a season with 41, topping Roy’s old mark. Varly overcame a domestic violence incident in the middle of the season to post his career best year. He is a former first round pick of the Washington Capitals that the Avs acquired via trade in 2011. The heat will only get turned up in the playoffs. Offense wins regular season games; goaltending wins playoff games.
Playoff hockey is the best of all the major sports. The Avalanche has had a magical season. It’s great to see them back in the playoffs. Here’s hoping the wild ride is just beginning.