In the franchise's 12 seasons in Denver, the Avalanche never has had a more enigmatic team than the one that beat lowly Edmonton 4-2 on Wednesday at the Pepsi Center.
So far this season, the Avs have tantalized, frustrated, excited and angered their hard-core fans — sometimes all in one period.
Their 10-2 home record is among the best in the NHL. Yet despite a night when the Oilers trailed 4-0 after two periods, managed only 13 shots on goal and were decisively outplayed, the Avalanche has underachieved.
If Colorado has another good week, it suddenly could be as high as second in the Western Conference. Yet if the Zamboni sputtered this frequently, the mechanics would be double-checking to make sure nobody poured sugar into the gas tank.
The Avs have an intriguing mixture of young and veteran talent that includes one of the league's emerging superstars, Paul Stastny; the perennial, Joe Sakic; and the high-priced and highly sought Ryan Smyth.
Yet that roster hasn't yet truly meshed.
"We're looking to have that complete game, from start to finish," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville said. "They scored a couple in the third, which kept us honest right to the end. But at the same time, I still thought we did some good things throughout the game.
"That's what we're looking to achieve, to get all the lines bring some momentum, bringing some offense, bringing some consistency and playing hard. I think today we saw that."
The biggest challenge, though, is to bring back the buzz.
Colorado's home sellout streak is so far gone, it seems to be from the sepia- toned, good, old days. The 2004-05 lockout still is taking a delayed toll. The ridiculous schedule format — thankfully, about to be scrapped — and ticket prices provided excuses to give up season tickets. For $108 or so a ticket, the experience should be akin to that once-a-year, unforgettable, date-circled concert; and the NHL has given its fans divisional round-robins.
The less-than-compelling on-ice performance of the Avs has made it all worse. Toss out the four wins in as many tries against the Oilers, and Colorado is 9-9-1. But I'm not just talking about the record. There were so many reasons to assume that this team could be exciting, could bring electricity back to the rink, could build on the promising 15-2-2 run down the home stretch of last season.
As weird as this sounds, even during the 6-0 start at home, that wasn't happening. It still isn't.
You can pick up the stats and try to put your finger on the reasons. Sakic and Smyth's so-so production. A power play that has ranged from mediocre at home to absolutely dreadful on the road. Defenseman Scott Hannan's minus-14 figure, which means he has been more like the departed Patrice Brisebois than a physical successor to Adam Foote, albeit with some adaptation to the post-lockout, anti-obstruction and anti-mugging standards. Unreliable goaltending from Peter Budaj and Jose Theodore.
But some of it isn't quantifiable. To repeat (and the NHL schedule makes one prone to repetition): Something's missing, and the Wednesday victory didn't do that much to make that feeling disappear. Edmonton's so bad, coach Craig MacTavish should be one of the leaders in the clubhouse for coach of the year for getting 10 wins out of the Oilers so far.
"It was a better effort tonight," said Smyth, the ex-Oiler. "They were four points behind us, and we knew we had
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to play a little better. There's always room for improvement in a season, and you go through ups and downs and you have to make sure you play through those down parts and stay on an even keel."
Quenneville's penchant for impatience and tinkering is neither unique nor always unjustifiable. But at some point, he would be better off to decide which center — Stastny or Sakic — he's going to keep Smyth with for a long stretch, and not just for periods at a time, hoping for chemistry to take hold. Colorado's defense has to ratchet up the physical play, still both necessary and possible under the post-lockout standards. And it's even as simple as loading up and firing from the point on the power play.
The biggest compliment of all: Although the Avs are a decent 13-9-1, they're capable of so much more.
The number of regular- season victories for the Avalanche since moving to Denver in 1995. The team is 500-286-101-38 as the Avalanche.