They are hardly a cast of household names, these Colorado Avalanche defencemen.
Of the group, only Erik Johnson stands out, and only then mainly for being a disappointing first overall pick from seven years ago, a player who lost an entire season after a bizarre golf cart injury while playing in St. Louis.
Next to Johnson, there’s Jan Hejda, Andre Benoit, Cory Sarich, Nate Guenin and promising youngster Tyson Barrie, who might just ultimately be the best of the bunch.
No, their star power is mainly behind the bench – i.e. Patrick Roy – and up front with some impressive young talent.
Even so, the Avs are finding a way to win, game after game, with smart, simple hockey. It’s may only be three games, but the early returns indicate they may well wind up as one of this NHL season’s revelations – especially if the defence holds up.
In a battle of undefeated teams on Tuesday, Colorado’s latest victim was the Toronto Maple Leafs, part of an entertaining 2-1 game that was in doubt the entire 60 minutes but which the better team ultimately won.
The Avs edge came both on the back end – where Roy’s collection of castoffs and up-and-comers outplayed the Leafs more heralded group – and in the fact Leafs coach Randy Carlyle used a very short bench up front, giving five of its 12 forwards less than 9.5 minutes ice time.
The win wasn’t the result of anything fancy, but rather just simplicity – with Colorado cycling the puck, clearing their zone, crashing the net and playing the kind of hockey Carlyle has been seeking from his team in the early going of this season.
“Tonight we were held in our own zone from their aggressiveness,” Carlyle said. “We didn’t seem to be able to handle it, specifically in the second period [where Toronto was outshot 15-7]. Any time that we got the puck through the neutral ice, we either were 2-on-3 or 2-on-4 or 3-on-4 and we weren’t able to sustain any pressure. I think that was a lot of the way the game went against us.”
Leafs winger Joffrey Lupul, who scored the Leafs lone goal midway through the second period, admitted it was a frustrating game to play in, one where the road team dictated the play for pivotal stretches.
“But not every game’s going to be wide open, up and down,” Lupul said. “They played a good road game, and they’re a good checking team.”
From the start, the game was back and forth, with few whistles early and just five power plays all night, a showcase of even strength play between two young teams unfamiliar with one another.
The Avs speed, meanwhile, shone through, as did their depth at centre, with Matt Duchene – who played nearly 20 minutes and was 72 per cent on the draw – and Paul Stastny clearly helping control play in the Leafs end.
It was Toronto that scored first, however, capitalizing when Avalanche netminder Semyon Varlamov had a hard time handling rookie Carter Ashton’s long shot and the puck bobbled in underneath him in the crease. Lupul crashed the net, pushing both goalie and puck toward the goal line with his stick, and it trickled in under somewhat dubious circumstances.
Roy didn’t like it on the Colorado bench, but the goal stood.
Colorado then tied it minutes later when Sarich (of all people) swept in from the point and put a seeing eye shot over Leafs starter Jonathan Bernier’s shoulder for his first goal in nearly two years, and just his 21st in 918 regular season games. The goal ended a flawless run for Bernier who hadn’t allowed a goal in more than 100 minutes.
Early in the third, with the Leafs pairing of youngster Jake Gardiner – the sudden subject of trade rumours – and Paul Ranger scrambling, Colorado went up 2-1 when PA Parenteau directed a cross-crease pass with his skates.
Ranger had misplayed his man in the neutral zone, and Gardiner was sprawled out helplessly on the ice far too early on the resulting 2-on-1, potentially another mark against the pairing as Carlyle continues to contemplate how to get more consistent play out of his blueline.
Toronto had several chances to get the equalizer late, including a couple near misses on a power play that had the puck bouncing in and around Varlamov, first behind him and then on top of the net before Hejda dislodged it.
Aside from that, however, they took their first loss of the season rather quietly.
“I thought our goaltender gave us a chance,” Carlyle said. “The one goal that they did get went off a skate, but that’s when you throw pucks at the net, drive the middle lane and those things happen. Fair marks for them.”
Overall, the Leafs are probably where they should be after four games, with six points and a solid position in what will be a difficult Atlantic Division, a record built mainly on strong goaltending and special teams play, despite missing several bodies.
They certainly had a few bounces their way in Saturday’s win over the Ottawa Senators – including Mason Raymond’s controversial spin-o-rama winner in the shootout – and in their earlier two wins, too, but the hockey gods weren’t with them against the Avs.
Sometimes that's enough to turn two points into one, or one point into none.
And Colorado was a little bit better, a little bit deeper, and that was enough.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Lupul said of the Leafs game. “They got to us in the second period – they almost had 20 shots so obviously we’re not doing something quite right there. We played hard; we just got away from a couple things that we wanted to do. And they played well, so give them credit.”