The future is now for the Colorado Avalanche and tonight's win over the still-hated Detroit Red Wings provided even more reasons for Avalanche fans to still be checking in on their last-place club.
Mired deep in last place, the Avalanche made a few minor moves at the trade deadline and their first order of business after opening a forward roster spot was to call up J.T. Compher from the San Antonio Rampage, where he had excelled as a rookie in his first professional season. An impressive debut followed and then the shine seemed to slowly come off Compher as he was moved around in the lineup.
Tonight, the spotlight was back on the feisty 22-year-old center as he scored his first NHL goal (he said his parents will get the goal puck), the eventual game-winner in Colorado's 3-1 victory over Detroit. He was succinct in describing the goal but maintained his happiness on scoring in a game the Avalanche actually won, just their 20th of the season in game number 69.
"Nice play by (Avalanche defenseman Francois) Beauchemin getting me the puck up at the blueline and then my linemates drove the net and gave me an opportunity in the slot and I felt pretty good. It was good to get the lead and nice to get the first one out of the way."
The shot was very nearly tipped by linemate Mikhail Grigorenko, who took a swipe at the puck, but it never occurred to Compher his linemate might have gotten a piece of it because of Grigorenko's reaction.
"I honestly didn't," Compher said."I knew he drove the net but I was just happy it went in. It was a big goal and got us the lead. I actually didn't even think about that. He came over to me so I was happy about it."
The goal was a nice snipe past Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard, who made several spectacular saves to keep Detroit in it throughout the contest. His tally caused a divided crowd in the Pepsi Center to erupt with a deafening roar that hadn't been heard since opening night. Compher said the players definitely took notice of the energy in the building.
"I thought Avs fans did a great job keeping us going especially when we got the lead late in the third. It was fun, a fun game. It was awesome to get a win."
Now eight games into his NHL career, Compher's head coach, Jared Bednar, was effusive in his praise of his young centerman.
"He's a smart player," Bednar said. "He's a really smart player, plays with some pace. He's been all over the place in our lineup a little bit playing with some different wingers.
He moves the puck, he skates the puck through the neutral zone, you see he's got a good shot, good patience on that goal. He takes the middle of the ice, nobody comes to, and then he snaps it over Howard's blocker. The other night in Phoenix he had two great scoring chances, a breakaway on the penalty kill and had another tip that went off the post. He's starting to create some chances."
If that lengthy description sounds familiar, it's because it might remind Avalanche fans of another young number 37 who played center for the Avalanche once upon a time. While it could be the man he was traded for, Ryan O'Reilly, it's a former American star whose sparkling career began in Denver and was cut far too short by one of the organization's most short-sighted trades - Chris Drury.
Both products of the NCAA (Drury at Boston, Compher at Michigan) and listed just under six feet (Drury at 5'10", Compher at 5'11"), and 200 pounds, success was found in similar ways. Drury was a noted big-game player whose gritty two-way play made him an instant fan favorite and Compher is clearly already headed down the same road straight into Avalanche fans' hearts.
Drury's early career included a handful of highlights in the biggest moments, including against the Red Wings, who at the time were involved with Colorado in the bloodiest and arguably most intense rivalry the NHL has ever seen. While the stakes were lower tonight, it was as close to a playoff atmosphere the Pepsi Center has seen this season and Compher's first goal couldn't have come at a better time, even if the opponent didn't matter as much to him.
"First one's special no matter who you score against, when you score it but I didn't put too much thought into it," Compher said of his first goal. "It was good to get it in a win. It makes it a little more special."
When looking ahead to next season, Compher's games this season mean even more and serve as a de facto audition for management in an attempt to convince them he will be part of the opening night roster discussion.
The likely departures of older guys such as Rene Bourque and John Mitchell coupled with even more potential for change in the form of a Matt Duchene trade, make it easy to see the importance of Compher's development into a legitimate two-way contributor for the Avalanche.
Carl Soderberg's success last season as a secondary scorer was a key reason the Avalanche were in a playoff hunt in the final ten games of the season and his failure this year has played an important role in the team bottoming out. With Compher, Soderberg's importance will be reduced as if the big Swede is unable to rediscover his scoring touch, the young American will be right there to help pick up the slack.
If tonight proved anything, it's that Compher might be ready to pick up that slack sooner than most of us expected. Buckle up, Avalanche fans; There's another young number 37 in town and he's already making some noise.