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Establishing home ice "advantage" imperative for the Avalanche

Austin Manak Avatar
December 9, 2015

 

There is no place like home. Dorothy knew it. The Colorado Avalanche need to figure it out.

Sure, the wonderful wizard of Osweiler may play his home contests across I-25, but the Avalanche need to find their own yellow brick road to victory at Pepsi Center if they want to make a legitimate move toward NHL relevance this season.

Last night, against their burgeoning rival Minnesota Wild, the Avs collected just their fourth home win of the season. In itself, the win was bigger than most, because it exorcised some demons against a team that has given the Avs all sorts of problems in recent years. It gave the Avs consecutive victories on home ice for the first time this season — a step in the right direction.

Unfortunately, the Avs are still tied for last in the NHL in home wins.

Granted, the Avalanche have played a road heavy first third of the season, with 17 of their 28 games played at an elevation lower than the Mile High City they call home. Through the holiday season, the Avs will play 10 of their next 14 games at home, a perfect opportunity to improve on their modest 4-6-1 record in Denver this season.

Out on the road, the Avalanche aren’t taking on too much water. An 8-9-0 record is certainly within the city limits of respectability, and that pace gives them a shot to turn their season around if they can locate their mojo on home ice.

Last season, Western Conference playoff teams played at a 0.649 point percentage at home, which indicates just how imperative it is to take care of business in the cozy confines of your own building. The Avalanche are playing at a 0.409 point percentage at The Can, a sure sign it’s time for this team to turn it into Bachman-Turner Overdrive if they want to starting taking care of business.

A great home record doesn’t even guarantee the playoffs. Last season, the Los Angeles Kings were one of the NHL’s finest at home, with a 25-9-7 record. They failed to make the postseason. With the Western Conference, particularly the Central Division, as dangerous as ever… the Avs have their work cut out for them.

How can the Avalanche establish their home-ice advantage?

Find their heart?

Perhaps like the Tin Woodman, the Avalanche simply need to up the quantity of heart they pour into their games at home. If the Avalanche simply “want” to win more than their opponent, that should translate to results, right?

Earlier this season, after a disappointing loss 6-2 to the Boston Bruins at home, head coach Patrick Roy wasn’t happy with the effort his Avalanche displayed. Denver Post writer Mark Kiszla quoted Roy after the game:

If we don’t compete, or we get outworked, that becomes a problem. That should not be part of our values or our DNA at all. And if I accept that, I don’t think I’m doing my job. I love our fans. I love the support that we have. I feel that as an organization, we need to set the bar. When we play in front of our fans, we’re not allowed to get outworked. Period.

It’s always easiest to point to effort when things are going poorly, and while the Avalanche have perhaps had lulls in their competitive spirit at times this season, I’m not convinced it’s due to a lack of heart. These core players desperately want to win, and desperately want to please their fans. Erik Johnson, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog have all been vocal about their desire to win for the home fans.

In my opinion, the Avs have heart. Guys like Matt Duchene wear it on their sleeves. As a whole, this team doesn’t have an effort problem, so let’s move down the list.

Find their courage?

One of the oldest sentiments in hockey is that players need to have “hockey courage” in order to be successful. If you don’t “pay the price” then you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself if the results aren’t there.

Do the Avalanche have a bunch of Cowardly Lions on this roster?

I doubt it. The Avs lead the NHL with 481 blocked shots according to war-on-ice, which translates to 17 per game. The entire team installed clear plastic protection shields on their skates this season, allowing them to be more fearless when it comes to blocking shots, and the move seems to be paying off.

Defenseman Francois Beauchemin is second in the NHL with 78 blocked shots. Erik Johnson also finds himself in the top-ten with 61 blocks.

At the forward position, the ultra-talented Nathan MacKinnon ranks third amongst NHL forwards with 35 blocked shots. What does that say when one of your top offensive players, at 20-years old, is willing to step in front of enemy howitzers? Swedes Gabriel Landeskog and Carl Soderberg are tied for 11th with 24 blocks apiece.

Cody McLeod leads the NHL with seven fighting majors, and has been one of the most willing NHLers to drop the gloves on behalf of his teammates for his entire career. Jarome Iginla and Erik Johnson have also dropped the gloves this season.

The Avalanche don’t seem to be lacking hockey courage, and are doing many little things that old-school hockey fans will appreciate. Looks like we’ll be moving down the checklist before we find a diagnosis.

Find their brains?

Ah yes, the Scarecrow and his desire for a lumpy mass of neurons and grey matter upstairs. Last night against the Wild, we saw a very different looking Avalanche team than we have become accustomed to.

Deploying Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Tyson Barrie has always given the Avalanche a feeling of being a team that likes to play a fast, wide-open style of play. Speedsters need room to gallop.

Against Minnesota, who is excellent at stalling out the Avs speed game, this tactic has often been problematic for the Avalanche. In all honesty, many teams have mimicked the Wild blueprint, and clog up neutral ice to slow down the Avs transition game, while looking punish the Avalanche’s lack of depth on defense. Instead of continuing to try and fit a square peg through a round hole, the Avalanche adapted last night, and attempted to beat the Wild at their own game. It worked.

The Avs have recently started to play a 1-3-1 system, with a single forechecker high, three players defending the blueline in the neutral zone, and one defenseman playing “free safety” if you will — collecting any pucks the enemy team deposits in the defensive zone. Tyson Barrie and Erik Johnson both have excellent puck retrieval skills and are adept at stick handing out of their own zone, which make them ideal “free-safeties” for the one-man-breakout that is a huge weapon in today’s NHL.

This system alleviates pressure on defenseman that aren’t named Erik Johnson or Tyson Barrie, and helps the Avalanche keep a lid on the shot totals they give up per game.

Patrick Roy has taken his lumps as being a coach unwilling to adapt or address weaknesses, but this move he and his team made last night shows incredible savvy. The Avs were able to significantly limit the Wild’s chances with the new system. While it didn’t create more offense for the Avs, at least it evened the shot attempt playing field… which is something that has been a rare accomplishment for this Avs team, especially against Minnesota.

The Avs still would be wise to try and play an up-tempo style of hockey at altitude, but they also need to be smart enough to adapt and gameplan for specific opponents and game-situations. Patrick Roy always talks about “game management,” and to me, that starts with the x’s and o’s of strategy before the skates even hit the ice.

Find their confidence?

Confidence is an entirely impossible entity to quantify in the world of sports, and deviates from the Wizard of Oz theme — but I’m a firm believer that it goes a long way toward success or failure of teams and individuals.

For the Avs, getting comfortable with their identity this season has taken some time. Players have been settling into their roles, and it has been a process for the coaching staff to get many of the new pieces into a place where they can be successful.

[pullquote]WINNING IS A HABIT. UNFORTUNATELY, SO IS LOSING — VINCE LOMBARDI[/pullquote]

To me, a huge factor in the Avalanche’s lack of home success thus far, is that they don’t look like a team that believes they can dominate their home ice. I’m dancing with the chicken or the egg coming first here, I know, because winning breeds confidence.

Little advantages such as knowing how the boards play, having a feel for the ice, and sleeping in your own bed go out the window if you don’t believe you can be a team that is tough to beat at home. There is enough talent for this Avalanche team to win 25 games on home ice, they just have to have confidence they can do it. The problem they are realizing, is that’s easier said than done.

No matter the cause, the symptoms are clear, and the Avalanche have to be better in their own building. It’s time for the Avalanche to make the experience for fans at Pepsi Center one where there is no place like it, and in turn the fans will make the arena one of the toughest to play for visiting teams. A symbiotic relationship between players and fans can fuel both sides, and give players that extra edge needed to achieve victory, but the gas tank goes dry if the team isn’t winning.

Playing in Denver automatically gives the Avalanche the built in advantage of altitude. Denver holds an NHL record for consecutive sellouts, a testament to the fanbase and arena atmosphere of year’s past. The potential is there for the Avs to be great at Pepsi Center, and for Colorado to be a feared destination across the NHL landscape. After all… there is no place like home.

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