Another season is nearly in the books and it looks like, barring a miracle of some kind, the Colorado Avalanche are going to be just outside of the playoffs again. Expectations were high for this team, especially after the second half of the 2014-2015 season that saw the Avalanche figure out their game and make a strong push for a 90 point season. The team seemed to have learned their lesson from early that previous season and strong offseason moves made it appear that the Avalanche were ready to get back into the playoffs this year. Unfortunately for the Avalanche, their own inconsistencies kept them from making this a reality.
Stumbling Out of the Gates
Listening to the players talk during the offseason, it seemed that they were 100% clear that stumbling out of the gates in the 2015-2016 season was absolutely not an option. Then the Avalanche went 9-14-1 in the first two months of the season, once again putting themselves in a hole out of which they would have to climb. The Avalanche did manage to pull out of this rut and begin playing much more competitive hockey, eventually even pulling themselves into the playoff picture just before the All-Star break, where they stumbled again.
After putting themselves into a great position just before the All-Star break, the Avalanche stumbled out of the blocks yet again, losing four straight games (all on home ice) and eventually going a very unimpressive 5-7-0 in the month of February. The Avalanche did themselves absolutely no favors with their poor starts to both parts of the season, and it may have ultimately doomed them.
Home Sour Home
Playoff teams play well at home, that is a pretty general rule of thumb for any team that expects to make the playoffs. Of the teams that are currently in playoff positions, there are only two in the entirety of the NHL that do not have at least 20 wins on home ice. Those teams are the San Jose Sharks, who are an astonishing 26-10-3 on the road, and the Boston Bruins, 24-12-3 on the road.
The Avalanche are 17-17-4 at home, and while the 22-17-0 record they hold on the road is not bad by any stretch, it isn’t the 12 or more games over .500 that would pull the Avalanche up the way it has pulled the Sharks and Bruins up. Simply put, the Avalanche were never good enough on home ice all season long. There is always a lot of discussion on social media about how too many opposition fans are in the Pepsi Center on a nightly basis, but the bottom line is that the Avalanche players have not done a good enough job at silencing those fans. For whatever reason, on home ice, the Avalanche just never looked as comfortable this season.
The Avalanche have been awful at holding leads in the third period. They have given up leads that they have taken into the third period seven times this year. The team does a couple of things, they focus more on defense, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as they attempt to play “shut down” hockey, but the players seem to forget that they are still allowed to play some kind of offense. It’s no secret that when teams are behind, they will be more aggressive and will generally get more chances, that comes with the territory and it can be seen in every single game played in the NHL. What varies is the team with the lead’s ability to also create their own pressure. The good teams will weather those storms but still find ways to create their own scoring chances to put games away. The Avalanche need to rediscover how to be a team that takes a 2-1 lead into the third period and win the game 4-1.
A lot of this is on the players simply tensing up when they play with the lead. Their mentality isn’t that of a team that wants to take the bull by the horns and bury a team that they have down, it’s one of a team that is hoping to high heaven that they’ll just be able to hold on. It’s funny because all season, the team has talked about never sitting back and finishing teams when they get them down, only to come out and play afraid. People love to try and lay that at the feet of the coach, but a coach can only tell the team “don’t sit back” so many times before the players have to actually go out and do it.
Stars Not Coming Through
The big players on the Colorado Avalanche simply haven’t been good enough for consistent amounts of time. This is something I touched on, at length, in my last piece, but it’s a huge reason for the team’s lack of success. Matt Duchene has been the most consistent of the star players this season, despite his slow start. Erik Johnson also can be counted on to bring a strong effort on a nightly basis, and plays his role very well. The problem is that’s just two of your core players. There are still guys like Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Nathan MacKinnon and Semyon Varlamov who have been so wildly inconsistent that it has hurt the team.
Varlamov has had a roller coaster season, playing completely lights out hockey one night and being unable to see pretty much anything the next. Whether his was a struggle of confidence or being overused for so long, it ended up hurting the team several times throughout the season. Nathan MacKinnon is only in his third season, so he gets a bit of a pass as he is still a young player finding his way in the league.
The two biggest culprits of inconsistency are two of the players that have the potential to make the biggest impacts in games when they decide to bring their best efforts. Gabriel Landeskog is far too inconsistent at this point of his career. He absolutely disappears for long stretches of time, only being noticed when he is doing something that hurts his team. He will then have stretches of games where he seems to have rediscovered what makes him successful, hitting everything that moves, shooting everything at the net and powering his way to the front of the net. When he does this, he’s successful, but he never does it consistently, and it’s a huge problem for the Avalanche.
Then there is Tyson Barrie, whose offensive ability can change games in favor of the Avalanche. Unfortunately, where he lacks his consistency is in the defensive zone. It’s pretty easy to see when Barrie is at his absolute best because he is so into the game in all three zone. When Barrie is engaged defensively, it helps his offensive game too because he tends to be the person who starts the whole transition and then jumps into the play. When he isn’t moving his feet defensively, he isn’t as active offensively either and it shows. He’s one who desperately needs the bring his best effort night in and night out and he simply doesn’t do it enough.
Beat Teams You’re Better Than
This has been a big problem for the Avalanche going back for several years. To a certain point the Avalanche have done a better job at this with some teams this season, but still not good enough. Last season, it was a couple of losses to the Edmonton Oilers that put the nail in the coffin at the end of the year. This season, the Avalanche have multiple losses to teams like Winnipeg, Buffalo, Vancouver, Carolina and Columbus, to name a few. All of whom are behind the Avalanche in the standings.
Now this is not to say that these should be considered free points, by any stretch of the imagination, but you cannot leave points on the table against teams that you are clearly better than. The Avalanche have had a terrible tendency of playing to the level of their opponents, which works great when you’re playing against some of the top teams in the league. The other side of that, however, is that you don’t take advantage of favorable situations and it can come back and bite you at the end of the season. This comes back to effort, the players have to have the same mentality going into a game against the Washington Capitals that they do against a team like Edmonton. You cannot pick and choose the games where you want to bring you best efforts, you bring them every night or you will lose.
The Colorado Avalanche are no longer a team that can really be considered “young.” Most of their core are entering the prime of their careers and are likely not in a position to show a ton of improvement from year to year. They are also no longer a team that is “learning,” they know the formulas for success and it is up to them to implement them on a consistent basis. Play better at home, be ready to play when the schedule starts, close out games where you take leads to the third period, your best players have to show up on a nightly basis and beat the teams that you should beat. Until the players in that locker room stop talking about the right things and start doing the right things, the Avalanche will continue to be buried by their own inconsistencies.