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Monday, October 17, 2011
Young Avs squad off to surprising start

By Pierre LeBrun

TORONTO -- Their cherub faces on the ice were all smiles and chuckles during Monday's morning skate at Air Canada Centre.

Funny what a four-game winning streak, all on the road no less, can do for the confidence of the NHL's second-youngest team.

But it's not arrogance you sense as you walk into the Colorado Avalanche dressing room. Far from it. It's the feeling of a youthful core that is growing in belief.

"Everyone's clicking," Avs star center Paul Stastny told ESPN.com ahead of Monday night's game against the 3-0-0 Toronto Maple Leafs. "It's a young team and guys are having fun. Obviously when you're winning, confidence is high. But even throughout the preseason, you felt something different about this year."

Avs
The Colorado Avalanche are off to a 4-1-0 start.

An atrocious second half last season sank the Avs. That's why, despite the obvious young talent on this roster, the experts were largely unsure of what this season was going to bring.

"I think the easy prediction is that we weren't going to do that well this year. Obviously, a lot of people felt way," Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson said Monday.

But Johnson points to the devastating injuries the club suffered last season. Just from a health standpoint alone, he said he believes that is one major factor for a turnaround.

"I also think we're one of the deepest teams down the middle with Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, Ryan O'Reilly and Jay McClement," Johnson said. "Varly [goalie Semyon Varlamov] has been tremendous. ... We've got a lot of confidence in this group, but we want to stay even keel. That's what we're preaching right now."

And that's the key for this young Avs team. Impressive road wins in Boston and Montreal, in particular, tell you this team can get it done. But it's whether such a young club can deliver consistently over 82 games.

Sometimes the pitfalls of a young club, once a bump in the road comes along, it can become a wall. Can this young collection of talent avoid that this season?

"We have to learn from last season," Avs GM Greg Sherman told ESPN.com on Monday. "We know there's 77 games to go, and that's a long way to go. Consistency is what we need to attain as a group. That was part of the learning experience last year."

It was only one game, but the young Avs survived a comeback from the Habs and came back themselves to tie it before winning in a shootout Saturday in Montreal, one of the most intimidating rinks in the league. It showed resiliency; a year ago, they might have folded in that situation.

"When you look at the group as a whole, our identity is pretty straightforward. We're a young, energetic, enthusiastic team,” Sherman said . "Our plan hasn't changed in how we're putting this franchise back on track."

Attendance has dipped in Denver over the past few seasons in what was once an automatic sellout at the Pepsi Center. The club was 24th last season, 27th in 2009-10 and 26th in 2008-09. The club must renew acquaintances with fans that were spoiled during the Joe Sakic/Patrick Roy/Peter Forsberg days.

The team has a long way to go to get back to those heady days, but this young roster can play an entertaining game. That can sell tickets, or at least that's the hope.

"It's up-tempo. We want to put an exciting brand on the ice," Sherman said. "Back in the days when we had Sakic and Forsberg down the middle, now we have Stastny, O'Reilly and Duchene down the middle. We feel really strongly about what we've done on the blue line. And finally, we addressed our issues between the pipes."

Varlamov was the marquee offseason addition, as the Avs traded away their 2012 first-round pick and a conditional second-rounder in 2012 or 2013 to Washington for the services of the young Russian netminder.

Some people viewed that as a heavy price to pay, especially when there were veteran UFA goaltenders such as Tomas Vokoun available who wouldn't cost any assets to sign. And there was a lot of buzz about the first-round pick they gave up. If the Avs have another season like 2010-11, the Capitals could have a lottery pick on their hands.

The Avs, however, wanted to bring in a starting goalie who fit in with the youth movement, and they got that in Varlamov, a player who's ready to help this team right now.

"Absolutely within the plan, he's 23 years old," Sherman said. "He's a former first-round pick. We just felt as an organization it was the right time to bring in a person like that and not have to move any of our roster players or current prospects."

If they keep playing the way they have so far this season, they won't have to sweat that 2012 first-round pick too much.

Playing it safe with Mueller

Avs winger Peter Mueller was set to sit out his third straight game Monday night.

"He could have been available to us tonight, but it was my decision to have him take a few more days," Avs coach Joe Sacco said Monday.

The Avs don't play again until Thursday, so Sacco said he thought the extra few days would do Mueller good. The Avs' first-line winger missed all of last season with a concussion.

Strong start for Kessel

Maple Leafs star winger Phil Kessel was named the NHL's first star of the week after posting five goals and three assists in his team's opening three games of the season.

"It's just the flow right now," Kessel told reporters Monday. "I'm just going out there and playing the game and doing whatever it takes to get wins."

Kessel's plus-7 rating jumps out, and he has been rewarded with ice time late in games.

"Statistically, it's pretty clear the way he's played," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. "There were some great performances obviously throughout the league, but Phil's done it in every game, so I think it's deserved."