My worst prediction so far: betting against the Avs

January, 5, 2010

We are at the midway point of the season, and I figured it was time to look back at the worst prediction I made in September by far: that the Colorado Avalanche would finish last in the Western Conference.

Of course, I wasn't alone in the media to make that assertion; it was a widespread feeling. But it doesn't get me off the hook. So, when Avs coach Joe Sacco gave me a call this week, he broke into a hearty laugh when I told him how much crow he's making a lot of us hockey scribes eat these days.

It was the kind of laugh that makes you feel like Sacco is enjoying beating down the dire preseason predictions. Last place? Ha! Try 24-13-6 heading into Wednesday night's home game against the New York Islanders, and battling for first place in the Northwest Division and third place in the West.

And, yes, those preseason predictions came in handy for the first-year NHL coach when it came to rallying his youthful troops.

"I think we might have used it more as motivation at the beginning of the season, where I think any time you question a team and the individuals on the team, everyone takes it personally," Sacco told "We tried to use that at the beginning of the season to try and prove people wrong. Maybe we had a bit of a chip on our shoulder, and I think it helped motivate us and helped us get off to a good start."

The question that will continue to hover over the Avs is whether they can avoid hitting the wall. They did hit a rough patch this season, posting a 5-6-3 record in November following a 10-2-2 opening month of October. But they recovered from that hiccup and have gone 9-5-1 since then.

"I think when you have young players like we do, the one thing I think that's easier for a coaching staff to do is keep that level of enthusiasm and that level of excitement up," said Sacco, a midseason candidate for the Jack Adams Award. "That energy and enthusiasm spreads out, and it gets contagious and it rubs off on the veteran guys. That's been very helpful and very useful for us, the ability to play with energy and enthusiasm all the time.

"It's hard for any team to maintain that level all year long, but so far we've done a pretty good job."

Sacco also is quick to praise goaltender Craig Anderson and backup Peter Budaj.

"Goaltending has been key," Sacco said. "We've gotten great goaltending from Craig, and when Peter has been in, he's also done well. It's no secret that a lot of our success comes from our goalies, as well."

Anderson was sensational in the opening month and has been pretty good since, but it's interesting to note he's slipped a bit from the leaders; his 2.68 goals-against average ranks 23rd among NHL goalies and his .916 save percentage 15th. It'll be important for Sacco to make sure he doesn't overwork Anderson in the second half, as his 36 starts to this point make him among the busiest netminders in the league.

The Avs were among the better teams in October when it came to special teams, but their performance there also has dipped; the team is in the middle of the pack in both power-play and penalty-killing efficiency. What's remained impressive, and the reason the middling special teams haven't hurt the team, is the Avs' five-on-five play, where they rank ninth in their goals for/against ratio.

"That's been strong for us," Sacco said. "We realize in the second half that one area we'd like to improve on is our special teams play. I do think special teams will become more important in the second half with the games meaning more and the checking becoming tighter. But it's been refreshing this year that we haven't put so much pressure on those areas because we've been good five-on-five. We're getting good opportunities and good chances from all four lines right now."

What's really incredible is how a team with such youth at center can continue to maintain this kind of consistency. Paul Stastny is still a kid, while Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly are pups.

"Paul just turned 24 the other day," Sacco said. "We have a 24-year-old, plus two 18-year-olds up the middle. It makes for a young team at center, and that's the probably the most important position after your goaltender. It's a tough position to play in our system because we rely so much on our center to play a 200-foot game."

Duchene was named rookie of the month for December and is closing in on New York Islanders forward John Tavares for the rookie points lead. O'Reilly continues to be a great penalty killer, and Stastny leads the team in scoring and will be Team USA's No. 1 pivot at the Vancouver Olympics next month.

Regardless of how the second half plays out, Avs fans have to be loving their long-term forecast. Now, we just need those same Avs fans to buy tickets again. Despite a wonderful and surprising first half, the Avs rank 27th in NHL home attendance; their 13,861 average crowd per game is ahead of only Atlanta, the Islanders and Phoenix. Even Nashville is ahead of them.

But Sacco believes the market is beginning to take notice.

"The game after Christmas, we had a sellout crowd and a pretty entertaining game against Dallas," he said. "We can only control what we can control, and that's going on the ice and providing good entertainment for the fans, which I think we've done for the most part this year. We're a fun team to watch, we're exciting, we skate hard and we compete hard. Hopefully, the other things [selling tickets] will take care of itself."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer


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