With Patrick Roy as its backbone, the Colorado Avalanche was always among the class of the NHL, winning two Stanley Cups and going to four other conference finals during the Hall of Famer’s eight years in Colorado’s net.
But in recent years, the Avalanche fell dramatically, missing the playoffs in four of the past five years and so badly in three that the team was able to draft Nathan MacKinnon first overall in 2013, Gabriel Landeskog second overall in 2011 and Matt Duchene third overall in 2009.
Add Ryan O’Reilly 33rd overall in 2009, and that provided a firm foundation for Colorado to rebuild fast and furiously. Then, you install the passionate Roy as coach, and it’s simple to see why many pundits felt the Avalanche could be the Central Division’s X-factor this season.
Now, few would have predicted Roy’s Avalanche would reel off a 12-1 start and sit atop the NHL at one point, but when you consider the depth of Colorado’s star-studded forward group and Roy and infamous goalie guru Francois Alaire coaching netminders Semyon Varlamov and former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jean-Sebastien Giguere, it’s easy to see why Colorado is sitting at 17-6 — tied with the Wild with 34 points in three fewer games.
This weekend in a home-and-home that begins Friday in St. Paul, the Wild will get to see for the first time this new-look Avalanche team — the former Northwest Division rival/now Central Division rival that the Wild’s actually had the number of in recent years. The Wild is 31-11-5 against Colorado since March 5, 2006, including 12-2-2 in its past 16 in Denver since Jan. 24, 2008. That included last year’s must-win season finale that thrust the Wild into its first postseason for the first time since 2008.
“It’s fun to play these really good teams we haven’t seen yet,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, the Bloomington native who got to have Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ home Thursday night. “It’s a great measuring stick for us and probably a great measuring stick for the Wild, too, to play a team like us.
“For us, they’ve had some wins against us in the past, and we definitely want to change that. It starts this weekend with a home-and-home.”
Wild coach Mike Yeo said past records should be thrown out the window: “They’re for real.”
Johnson credits Roy for the transformation of the Avalanche. The goalie who won four Stanley Cups, three Conn Smythe Trophies, three Vezina Trophies and 702 combined regular-season and playoff games has brought a reinvigorated attitude to Denver.
Johnson said everybody was given a clean slate, starting with him. Johnson, 25, the former Gopher, has dealt with a lot of pressure and expectations since being the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft.
He missed all of 2008-09 with a torn ACL and MCL and his game has been inconsistent, both with St. Louis, the team that drafted him, and Colorado, the team that traded for him.
This season, he has seven points in 23 games and is plus-13, tied for fifth among NHL defensemen, logging nearly 22 minutes a night next to Jan Hejda.
“It’s been the most consistent I’ve ever played by a mile,” Johnson said. “For me, I had spurts where I’ve played very good hockey and I’ve had spurts where I’ve played awful hockey, and I couldn’t get that balance of putting it together every single night.”
Johnson said Roy called him over the summer and gave him a pep talk.
“He said, ‘I understand the pressure you’ve been under, but just forget about it. You can’t control what other people think of you,’ ” Johnson said. “That was big for me just to hear that from him. This is a legendary player and to hear him say he thinks I can be a top player on his team makes you feel good.
“He’s such a great motivator and gives us all a jolt of energy every night. Just the way he motivates and prepares us to play is the best I’ve seen, and he’s my fourth coach in seven years.”
Roy also showed his players he had their backs opening night when he felt MacKinnon was kneed late in a game against Anaheim. Roy lost his temper and nearly pushed the partition between benches onto Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.
“You never know what you’re getting with a coach that comes right out of junior [Quebec], but with him, it was different,” Johnson said. “He played so long in the league and as far as his mind and understanding of the game of hockey, it’s second to none. We’re in really good hands, and lucky to play for a guy like that.
“We’re real confident right now. We’re as fast as anyone in the league. I know if I was an opposing player, seeing the forwards we have and the speed they have, it’s intimidating for sure. But there’s still a lot to prove for our group. We really haven’t accomplished anything yet.”