Looking at the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes, it’s hard not to draw some parallels between their surprising successes over the last two seasons. Both teams were picked to be among the worst in the NHL last season—yet both managed to make the playoffs in the tough Western Conference. Despite their strong play last year, both were widely tabbed as teams who would slip from their playoff perch this season. Yet again, both teams have surprised outsiders as earlier this week they each held down 2nd place in their respective divisions.
This year, the young Avalanche are one of the highest scoring teams in the league—while the Coyotes are still lead by a strong defense that keeps their opponents at bay. Whatever the route, both are looking to silence the critics again with playoff runs.
With this in mind, we brought in Travis Hair from the Coyotes blog Five For Howling and Mr. Scribbits himself from Avalanche blog JibbleScribbits.com. We asked the same questions to each of the writers—ranging from pre-season expectations to attendance problems. Here’s what they threw down. Enjoy!
Expectations were for both teams to take a slide back. You obviously follow your team closer than outsiders—what were your expectations coming into the season?
Colorado: I actually expected the Avs to be better this season (and they have been). They were a young team, most of the core group of players are under 26 years old. It’s only natural that they improve. That said,before the beginning of the season I didn’t think they would make the playoffs, despite being better. I think other teams in the West improved too, and just because the Avs are better doesn’t mean they’ll end up in a better position.
Phoenix: I think my expectations were about what they were last year – to make the playoffs. I’m sure I was among the few who expected that last year, and even I didn’t think they’d get the 4th seed. This year I just expect the Coyotes to make the field and be competitive once they get there.
Something that keeps getting brought up with both teams (and we’re doing it again here) is the respective attendance struggles. Why do you think the numbers are low this year and what does your team need to do to get more people to fill the seats?
Colorado: As Matt Muzia recently brought up – the Avs are tenth in local ratings in the league, despite being well below the tenth biggest market. So the fan base is there, but people still aren’t going to games. To me that points directly to ticket prices and the economy. And as I recently wrote, the Avs have done a wonderful job bringing hockey into people’s homes with their own network dedicated to HD Avs and Nuggets games. It’s pretty easy on a Monday night to sit in your comfy home and watch the game.
Phoenix: Obviously the biggest thing has been the continued uncertainty around the franchise. Even with the great season the fans haven’t wanted to get connected to the team just in case. Hopefully now that things are coming to a resolution the fans will come back to the arena to see more games. If they can keep doing what they have been, namely keep winning, then the fans will come – especially since all the other teams in the Phoenix area stink this year. The Cardinals aren’t doing anything, the Suns are mediocre at best, and the DBacks are off until Feb/March – and even once they start up they’re expected to be pretty weak. The Coyotes SHOULD be the sports story in the valley if they keep it up.
Since people keep underestimating your team, what is it about them that people keep missing?
Colorado: I think it’s easy to look at this year’s team the same way as last season’s team. The Avs jumped out to a hot start, rode a .500 record the rest of the way to hold onto the final playoff spot, and were pretty thoroughly dominated by the Sharks in the playoffs. The Avs won a lot of games last season despite being pretty heavily outshot as well. Fortunately, that’s not happening this season, and the Avs are a much better team underneath the numbers.
Phoenix: The Coyotes just play a hard hitting, fundamentally sound game on most nights and everyone buys into the system. That’s why so many different guys have won games for the Coyotes. It’s just a team that does whatever it takes to win a game.
Goaltending: Both the Coyotes and the Avalanche were heavily dependent on goaltending last season. But looking at how both Jason LaBarbara and Peter Budaj have played this year, do you think it’s the team in front of the goaltenders that have been the secret to the success? Or are the back-up goaltenders just that good?
Colorado: Well, I’d argue that Peter Budaj hasn’t been very good at all this season. His .895 save % is near the bottom of the league, and having a save % south of .900 is not good. So I’d argue the team in front of him is pretty good for the Avs to be competing for a playoff spot.
Phoenix: For the Coyotes the team in front seems to pick it up a bit when he plays, or so it seems, in trying to block shots and limit chances. LaBarbera also seems to step up though and win the game when they’ve needed him to. Some of the saves he’s made this year have just been spectacular. So basically I’d say that while the defensive system certainly helps, both he and Ilya Bryzgalov have been huge in goal.
In order to get back to where they were last year, what is the biggest obstacle that your team is facing this season?
Colorado: Right now, injuries for sure. The Avs have been in the top 1/3 in man games lost for the last 5-6 seasons now. This season I’d be stunned if they weren’t 1st.
Phoenix: Just an overall lack of scoring at times. The team as a whole can be awfully streaky and go long periods where nothing seems to go in. While it’s great to have so many guys contribute, it would also help to have a guy or two they could rely on to pot the goals they need from night to night.
Do you think they’ll be able to keep it up? More importantly, do you expect them to make the playoffs come April?
Colorado: I think they are going to get better. They have had a lot of key players go down (Stewart, Anderson, Galiardi, etc) and have held together pretty well. As they get healthy the team should only get better. Also, the Avs have had a road-heavy schedule to this point, and play 15 of their next 20 at home.
Phoenix: Yes and Yes. The Coyotes haven’t given me any reason to doubt them yet. The Pacific will be tight, but I expect the Coyotes to be near the top of the division come the end of the regular season.