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Upstart Avs bury pundits' predictions with quick start

Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (1) is congratulated by center Matt Duchene (9) and Colorado Avalanche left wing Cody McLeod (55) for an overtime victory against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center. The Colorado Avalanche beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime.


They're in the playoffs one year, outsiders the next. It's been the Rocky Mountain way since the NHL lockout ended in 2005.

In 2006, 2008 and 2010, the Colorado Avalanche have reached the postseason and taken a shot at the Stanley Cup. In the odd-numbered years (2007, 2009, 2011), it was as if they jumped over the boards with their skate laces tied together.

But with this season ending in 2012, the trending is good for the Avs, who've helped themselves with a 6-2 start heading into their game Wednesday against the Calgary Flames. It's made the Avs an early surprise and a must-watch team brimming with youthfulness, from Erik Johnson and Paul Stastny to Matt Duchene and rookie Gabriel Landeskog, who has four goals and an assist in his first eight NHL games.

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If the Avs are startled by their October showing, they aren't showing it. As veteran winger Milan Hejduk explained: "I saw all the [preseason]predictions about us and I thought they were based on what happened last year when we fell apart in the second half. It wasn't about what we could do this year.

"It's early but this is a better team."

Hejduk says Colorado is "bigger on defence and has two good goalies" – newcomers Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sébastien Giguère, who joined the team in the off-season and have made a favourable impact to this point. There's also a group of forwards that is learning to play together and take responsibility for their actions.

Consider the recent plight of Duchene. An acknowledged slow starter, the Calder Trophy finalist of 2009-10 was dropped to the fourth line in a shootout win last Saturday over the Chicago Blackhawks. Instead of brooding about it, Duchene apologized to his coach and teammates for playing poorly.

"I'm not doing what's needed to help the team win," said Duchene, who has scored just once. "I think I try to jump in too quick. I'm so hungry to get the season started that I forget to do the little things. … Hopefully I can get better. But we're winning and that's good."

The way the Avs see it, winning early is the right tonic for an inexperienced team. It settles nerves and builds confidence. The irony, though, is that Colorado's youngest player has performed like a seasoned pro.

Landeskog, the second overall pick in the entry draft this year, has already become the youngest Swedish-born player in NHL history to score a goal, and that's helped fuel the Landeskog-as-Peter-Forsberg comparisons. (Landeskog made his NHL debut the night Colorado honoured Forsberg by retiring his jersey No. 21.) "It started at the draft," said Landeskog, who is currently tied for the team lead with 21 hits, a testimony to his physical nature. "It's fun to hear that kind of stuff but at the same time there's never going to be another Peter Forsberg. … I'm my own player. I base my game on hard work and being able to play the offensive side of the ice and the defensive side."

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Hejduk played with Forsberg and insisted there is much to like about the way Landeskog is handling things.

"He's making fairly smart decisions in our zone. He looks pretty mature. That's going to help him now and in the future as he develops," Hejduk said.

As for the Avs development, they are aware they got off to a good start last season only to come unglued and fall to 14th place in the Western Conference. But with a little more depth and a lot more faith, the belief is this season is going to work out nicely. (Why? Because, "We're building a team aspect," answered Stastny.) As recent history has proven, 2012 is a good year to be in, not out, for the Avs.

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Allan Maki is a national news reporter and sports writer based in Calgary. More

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