How the Avalanche rose from rock bottom to playoff contention

by
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports / USA TODAY Sports

Don't look now, but the Colorado Avalanche are just three points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with two games in hand.

What a difference a year makes. Just one season removed from being the NHL's laughing stock, finishing with the lowest point percentage in the shootout era, the club has undergone a huge transformation in its style of play.

Through 39 games this season, the Avs currently boast a 20-16-3 record, good for 43 points and the 19th-best mark overall. Through 39 contests last year, the club sat at the bottom of the league with a 13-26-1 record.

Unlike last season, the club is getting strong contributions throughout the roster, while the decision to keep head coach Jared Bednar at the helm looks to be paying off. This healthy dynamic - minus the distraction caused by the Matt Duchene saga - has helped the team enter the playoff conversation, and the Avs could realistically make the postseason if some current trends persist.

MacKinnon, Rantanen are Avalanche saviors

Nathan MacKinnon and sophomore Mikko Rantanen have been leading the charges this campaign. MacKinnon sits fifth in league scoring with 48 points, while Rantanen has put up 36 in 39 games - just two points shy of last season's total.

The two have formed a strong chemistry and have factored in on 21 of the same goals. As it stands, MacKinnon is on pace to finish with 100 points, which would make him the first Avalanche player to hit the century mark since Joe Sakic tallied 100 during the 2006-07 season. Meanwhile, Rantanen is on pace for 75 points, which no Avalanche player has done since Paul Stastny potted 79 in 2009-10.

The two have been scorching hot of late. During the team's last 10 games - in which time it's gone 6-3-1 - MacKinnon has posted six goals and 15 points, while Rantanen has put up four and 12.

Bednar's 2nd chance is paying off

The coaching staff deserves some love for the team's resurgence. Many were willing to throw Bednar to the wolves after last season, but Sakic was not one of them. He elected to give the first-year coach another chance and it looks to be paying dividends.

The team's systems, and more specifically, their special teams play have drastically improved from last year.

2016-17 (League Rank) Stat 2017-18 (League Rank)
3.37 (30th) GA/GP 3.1 (21st)
2.01 (30th) GF/GP 3.21 (6th)
12.6% (30th) PP% 19.6% (13th)
76.6% (29th) PK% 83.8% (7th)
90.69 (30th) 5-on-5 SV% 92.20 (18th)

In each of the categories above, the Avalanche have made significant steps forward, rising from virtually last place to, in some cases, among the league's best.

Varlamov is back

Between the pipes, Semyon Varlamov has recovered from a dismal 2017 campaign. The 29-year-old was limited by an injury last year, but in the 23 games he did play, he posted a 6-17-0 record with an .898 save percentage and a 3.38 goals-against average.

He's reclaimed his role this year as the team's starter, and while his numbers aren't astonishing by any stretch, he's gone 13-9-2 with a .912 save percentage and 2.87 goals-against average.

Colorado will need to find ways to win away from home if it really plans to mount a playoff run. The team will play 13 of 16 games on the road between Jan. 22 and Feb. 24, and so far Colorado has gone 7-9-2 when playing on foreign ice.

The Avalanche must continue to build on what they've already put together through the first half of the season. They're far from being contenders, but given that they were historically bad last season, there's no arguing they've quickly turned a corner and can now at least play some meaningful hockey.

(Photos courtesy: Action Images)