Central

Are the Avalanche Wild Card Contenders Again?

Are the Avalanche Wild Card Contenders Again?
Luke Lapinski

Two weeks ago, the answer to the above question would have been a resounding “no”, followed by an odd look and a possible verbal questioning of your sanity. But suddenly, the prospect of Colorado sneaking into the playoffs doesn’t seem so impossible. Is it likely? Maybe not. Is it still kind of far-fetched? Yeah, probably. But it’s not out of the question anymore.

That’s because the Avalanche are stacking wins when it matters most. In the month of March, they’re now 5-1. Since Valentine’s Day, they’ve won 10 of 14. If the Winnipeg Jets falter at all in that No. 2 wild card spot, a couple clubs could pass them and, with 13 games to go, the Avs are now one of them.

The key for Patrick Roy‘s squad now is to maintain this late-season revival – especially in their head-to-head matchups against fellow playoff contenders. Normally, this sort of push might prove futile because it is simply coming too late after a disappointing first half – and it still very well might ultimately come up short. But the fact that five of their final 13 contests are against teams right around them in the standings means much of their fate is actually still in their own hands.

So how exactly has Colorado turned things around? For the most part, it’s been because of a balanced scoring attack. In the stretch since Feb. 14, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie, Jarome Iginla, Nathan MacKinnon and Alex Tanguay have all registered at least five goals. And in that same stretch, Landeskog (15), Barrie (15), Iginla (11), Ryan O’Reilly (12) and Matt Duchene (10) have all posted double-digit points. That means they’re not overly reliant on any one player for offense, and it makes their prospects at keeping this run going a little while longer that much more intriguing.

Of course, that balance is being tested now that MacKinnon is likely out until at least mid-April with a foot injury. The reigning rookie of the year went down on March 4, and that’s when guys like Landeskog, Iginla and Barrie really stepped up their production. Still, that’s a huge setback for a team to absorb at any point in the season, let alone when they’re trying to pull off a remarkable rally in March.

Regardless of how well the other forwards are playing, losing a player of MacKinnon’s caliber means there’s even more pressure on the goalie to perform well. And Semyon Varlamov has definitely stepped up. Following a 2013-14 campaign that saw him named a finalist for the Vezina, Varlamov has been pretty inconsistent for stretches tthis season. But he’s been a wall so far in March, going 5-0 with a 1.00 goals against average and .968 save percentage.

Those numbers aren’t sustainable – are normal – for any human being. But they are a strong indicator that the man playing the most important position on the ice is dialed in right now. So while the odds are still pretty heavily stacked against the Avs in their last-second playoff push, it’s worth noting that a hot goalie can do wonders in the NHL. And it’s not like this group hasn’t beaten the odds before. Just last season, they went from a cellar-dwelling club with the No. 1 overall pick to Central Division champs. With that experience in their back pocket, they’re not lacking for self-confidence.

Which brings us back to those five pivotal games. Of the final 26 possible points the Avalanche can still earn, they’ll likely need to grab at least 17-18 to have a legitimate shot at that wild card spot. And they have to have wins against the teams they’re trying to leapfrog. It’s tough to imagine the surging Minnesota Wild letting that top wild card spot slip away after the amazing second-half they’ve put together, so let’s just pencil them in for now. That essentially leaves Vancouver (82 points), Calgary (81), Winnipeg (80), Los Angeles (79) and San Jose (76) fighting Colorado (75) for that final spot.

Two of those clubs will get in just by finishing second and third in the Pacific (behind Anaheim, who wrapped up the division, like, four months ago). And common sense says LA is probably going to be one of them because, well, this is what LA does every year. Either way, it basically leaves the Avs fighting with three opponents for one spot. And they still face the Canucks (March 26), Flames (March 23), Jets (April 9), Kings (April 4) and Sharks (April 1) once more each. So again, when all is said and done, Colorado is still more likely to be on the outside looking in than the other way around. But, because of that schedule, they still have quite a bit of control over their own destiny. And that’s really all you can ask for at this point of the season.

Central
Luke Lapinski
@LukeLapinski

Luke is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he did radio play-by-play for a variety of Sun Devil sports as a student. Since then, he’s done extensive on-air radio work in Phoenix, predominantly as the pre and postgame host of Arizona Coyotes hockey. He’s been writing about sports for as long as he can remember, most notably as a frequent contributor to ESPN.com’s Insider and Rumor Central pages for a few years. He also co-hosts a hockey podcast creatively titled “The Hockey Podcast”, that can be found on iTunes and TuneIn.

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