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Avs show fight, but challenges await

10/13/2010

DETROIT -- The Colorado Avalanche stared at the schedule early this season and saw Stanley Cup finalists Chicago and Philadelphia followed by perennial powerhouse Detroit. Gulp.

Fear not, the young Avs said, they'll take two out of three and announce to the world they're not going away after stunning the NHL last season.

That's the big picture.

Hidden within that glossy snap shot are a few interesting storylines that have played out here over the past few days with the Avs, who dropped a 4-2 decision in Philadelphia on Monday before turning around and dropping the Red Wings 5-4 in a shootout Tuesday night, erasing three Detroit leads in the process.

The Avs relied way too much on goalie Craig Anderson last season, playing him in 71 games as he led the NHL in saves. That tired him out. This season, the plan is to give backup Peter Budaj more starts. But he's got to earn them. His teammates have to play with confidence in front of him. Monday night was a good start. Yes, Budaj gave up four goals on 28 shots, but the Wings were oh-so-dangerous as always. It's not quantity but quality with the Wings. The point is this: Colorado coach Joe Sacco gambled on Budaj in a tough rink, Joe Louis Arena, and it paid off.

"We have two very capable goaltenders," Sacco said. "Terrific win for Peter tonight. Happy for him. He's an extremely hard worker and the consummate professional. It was nice to see him get in there and play well."

Sacco knows he's got to get starts from Budaj this season. He needs Anderson to be a little fresher come the spring. Of course, if the Avs are life-and-death to make the playoffs, that's less of an easy decision.

"It's important going down the stretch, if you're a team that's worthy of being in the playoffs, the goalie would benefit from that [rest], for sure," said the coach. "I think the biggest thing is getting into the playoffs, getting into the dance. That's our goal."

Bring on the extra work, Budaj said.

"I think I played 11 games last year? I can definitely play more than that," Budaj said. "But this league is about winning. You win and you'll see more net. I have to be ready when I get called upon."

In the shootout, Budaj shut the door on all six Red Wings, including the likes of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen. Budaj also kissed the crossbar for saving him twice.

"I just tried not to show them too much net and tried not to show the first move, have them make the first move and then react to it," Budaj said. "I was lucky a couple of times, had a couple of crossbars."

Sacco also jumbled his forward lines before Tuesday's game. Most noticeable was last season's Calder Trophy runner-up, Matt Duchene, starting on the third line. Message?

"Yes," Sacco said. "I wanted to see more consistency, and I thought he played well tonight."

On a normal NHL team, Game 3 of the season would be a little early for sending messages, but this is a very young Avs squad desperately hoping to avoid a letdown. I think Sacco was brilliant for doing it this early, and it worked.

David Jones' performance was also a good sign. He had two goals, one assist and a plus-3 rating in 19:54 minutes of ice time. That's top-six material and what Colorado wants to see from him this season. He had 10 goals in only 23 games last season before a torn ACL ended his campaign.

"That start showed me I could play at this level and be a big factor in games," Jones said. "I'm going to try to carry that all season."

What a bonus it would be for Colorado to get him back to that level. He's almost like a free-agent addition given the time he missed last season.

"He's not a pure goal scorer, but he's a big, strong guy who skates well," Sacco said. "He can release the puck quick, and when you get confidence, things start to go well for you. He was playing well last season before the injury. He was our leading goal scorer at that time. He's going to be a real good player for us."

On the downside, the Avs' power play is now 1-for-10 after an equally dreadful preseason. They've also given up short-handed goals in back-to-back games (Tuesday's shorty by Patrick Eaves gave Detroit a 4-3 lead at 7:52 of the third period).

"I thought we worked hard in the offensive zone tonight," Sacco said. "We tried to simplify, but at the end of the day, we can't give up another short-handed goal at that juncture of the game. We have to be better there. We'll continue to work on that area."

The Avs' blue-line corps again looked overmatched Tuesday night and it figures once again to be their Achilles' heel. The team gave up way too many shots last season; only four teams gave up more than its 32.1 shots per game.