NEW YORK - That's why people haven't given up on Nail Yakupov just yet. That's why Matt Duchene wasn't just given away on the trading block.
And, THAT'S WHY the Avalanche protected Semyon Varlamov in the NHL Expansion draft, not Calvin Pickard, folks. On a day when the Vegas Golden Knights put Pickard on waivers, Varlamov made Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic look wicked smart by electing to protect him.
All three Avalanche players, in fact, made Sakic look good in the Avs' season-opening game at Madison Square Garden Thursday night. All three have something to prove again, and for one night anyway they proved they belong on the team and in the league.
The rest of the team? Well, there's still some work to do. Lots of it. Varlamov was Capital B brilliant for the Avs in his return from groin surgery. He might have had some work done on his deltoids too, because he just carried the Avs on his shoulders for large portions of this one.
The Avs beat the Rangers 4-2. They are a winning team, folks.
Varlamov was unbelievable in the third period, as wave after blue Ranger wave descended upon him When the horn sounded, though, he was still standing, victorious. He was done no favors for big portions of the game by a team defense that, uh, struggled again. Turnovers, bungled assignments, bad passing - all of it was covered up in the end by Varly.
That's what having a bona-fide No. 1 goalie can do.
Tyson Barrie's big blast off the rush, past Henrik Lundqvist with 2:10 left in the second period, broke a 2-2 tie. The Avs basically tried left it all up to Varlamov after that.
The first period ended as bad as it could for a team. The Avs were two seconds away from going into the first intermission up by a goal, and had the puck on their sticks a couple of times in the final 15 seconds for what should have been easy clearouts against a really tough Rangers power play.
But the Avs showed the exact same bad habits on the PK that has killed them for several years now. They took the clearouts for granted, made too soft a play on them and paid for it. Mikka Zibanejad was fed on the left point from Mats Zuccarello for a one-timer, and he beat Semyon Varlamov up high for the equalizing goal. Soft plays with soft sticks - that's the kind of stuff that just can not happen on the PK if the Avs want to have any sniff of a prayer of being a winning team again. Matt Nieto, who took two separate minor penalties in the period, was guilty of one of the bad clearout attempts.
The Avs got out to a quick 2-0 lead on goals by Duchene and Mikko Rantanen, the latter a one-timer off the power play. Duchene scored on a rebound in close at the 5:29 mark. He exulted after the goal.
It was first time he's looked happy in an Avs uniform in a while.
I asked him about the goal afterward:
It was a pretty shaky debut for Avs rookie defenseman Andrei Mironov. Pretty shaky indeed. He took a bad interference penalty in the first period, trying to line up Kevin Shattenkirk for a needless hit away from the puck, which led to New York's tying PP goal. He had a couple of other giveaways and basically it was terrifying every time he was on the ice in the first 40 minutes. Let's cut the kid a break, I mean, it was his first NHL game. But it will be interesting to see if Jared Bednar sticks with Mironov over Nikita Zadorov for Saturday's game in New Jersey.
About Zadorov? Yeah, I was surprised he was benched for the opener, but Bednar said he's "got some catching up to do" with his conditioning and timing and everything else hockey-related. Not a great thing for the kid, but it obviously sends the message to the rest of the team that Bednar is serious about being in shape. I've really noticed better fitness among Avs players, on an unscientific observation basis.
The Avs had some pretty lengthy power play time in the second period, and I was surprised not to have seen Yakupov get any time on it. Sven Andrighetto just wasn't very good in the pivot on the PP in this one, and more skill from Yak - who was dangerous every time he had the puck tonight - might have made a difference.
Chris Bigras was really good overall. He had a second-period assist and just played his position well at both ends. He's going to be around a long time for this team now I think.
Erik Johnson was just a horse. He double-shifted at times in place of Mironov and/or Bigras, and he was just very good. The Avs are just a vastly better team with him on it, and people forget things went in the dumpster when he went down a third of the way through last year.
Here's more EJ afterward:
The Avs' youth up front gives them just better speed in the neutral zone. They get the puck up through the middle of the ice quicker now, at least that's what I thought in this one.
Alexander Kerfoot - he prefers Alexander, not Alex - had a pretty second-period assist on Tyson Barrie's blast of a goal past Henrik Lundqvist. Like another former Av named Alex, though - Alex Tanguay - he makes you stomp your foot on the ground and yell "shoot!!!" sometimes. A third-period back-pass, when a point blank shot could have been had, was Exhibit A.
The Avs will practice Friday in Newark, N.J. They'll get another team for their home-opener, the Devils, Saturday afternoon.