There are many words one could use to describe Joe Sacco’s time with the Colorado Avalanche. Most fans, though, will agree that “inconsistent” may fit the best. In his first season as head coach (2009-10), the Avs were one of the most surprising teams in the league, qualifying for the playoffs as the 8th seed and taking two games from the San Jose Sharks in the first round. Sacco was nominated for the Jack Adams Award as the league’s best coach, and all was well in Colorado. Of course, the Avs seemingly took a Neil Armstrong-like leap back last season, finishing with the second fewest points in the league and ultimately ended up 29 points out of the playoffs.
Thus far, the 2011-12 season has been a mix of good and bad. The Avalanche clearly aren’t the worst team in the NHL, but they also aren’t one of the league’s best. At 26-23-2, the Avs have been saved by their stunning shootout record (7-0) and mostly fantastic play of “backup” goaltender, Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Currently sitting in 9th place in the Western Conference (one point behind Minnesota), the Avs will need to play a strong two and a half months of hockey in order to return to the postseason.
Unfortunately, one of the few things consistent about Joe Sacco’s head coaching career is how bad the Avalanche has played after long breaks.
On February 15th, 2010 (the first day of the NHL’s two-week Winter Olympic break), the Avalanche were sixth in the Western Conference with 76 points and tied with the Vancouver Canucks for the lead in the Northwest Division. Going into this two-week rest, the Avs were 5-2 in the month of February, and with only three players heading to the Olympics (Peter Budaj, Paul Stastny, and the late Ruslan Salei), appeared to be in prime position to be well-rested and healthy for the final month of the season.
Instead, upon returning from the break, the Avalanche went 8-10-3 and finished with 95 points, eight behind the division-winning Canucks.
The story was even worse last season. Going into the five-day All Star Break on January 27th, Colorado was 9th in the West with 56 points. Two months later, they were 14th. After five days without hockey, the Avalanche stormed out of the gate with seven straight regulation losses, including a 9-1 massacre by the Calgary Flames on Valentine’s Day. After going 1-11-1 in February, their gargantuan collapse continued to the tune of a 2-10-1 March and a 2-4 April. Of their five wins in the final half of the season, only one of them was secured in regulation. Overall, they gave up 59 more goals than they scored.
Last season’s collapse, however, could have been somewhat predicted by Avalanche fans, as the team was already struggling going into the break, having lost three of their last four before the All Star Game. Still, the last three months were inexcusable, and it simply can’t happen again.
So what we have, Avalanche fans, is a small sample size. But if the past two seasons are any indication of what is to come, it may be a bumpy ride the rest of the way.
The good news? Puck Daddy’s Harrison Mooney has picked the Avs to be the team that grabs the last Western Conference playoff spot. That has to mean something, right?
The bad news? Adrian Dater reports that it could be “weeks” before Matt Duchene returns to the ice.
With 11 of the next 13 games coming against Western Conference clubs, it’s going to be a season-defining stretch for the Avalanche.
Can Joe Sacco motivate this lineup to play every night like the season is on the line?