From the beginning of this season, you could immediately tell this Colorado Avalanche team was different than last year's team. While there were many new faces to drive the narrative of rebounding from a tough year, it was an old face that was always going to serve as the key to success this season: Semyon Varlamov.
The 29-year-old goaltender is now an old man in the suddenly-youthful Avalanche locker room. When the organization reaffirmed their commitment to Varlamov after a career-worst season that ended with hip surgery to fix his long-achy groin issues by protecting him in the expansion draft, many questioned the wisdom of allowing the younger Calvin Pickard to depart. But the front office maintained confidence in their quiet Russian netminder.
Thursday night's dominant performance against the Carolina Hurricanes by Varlamov saw him stop 57 of 60 shots on goal and lead the Avalanche to a 5-3 victory in front of 12,000 viewers of Avalanche history. The 57-save outing served as another example of why the organization didn't hesitate to keep their longtime starting goaltender around.
While the end result is the stuff of history books (the 57 saves are a regular season Avalanche record), it certainly didn't appear like Varlamov was on his way to history when he gave up a short-side goal just 55 seconds into the game from an angle that should never result in a goal against an NHL goalie. It was also a disappointing way to bounce back from his previous outing in which he gave up seven goals on 21 shots against the Vegas Golden Knights last week.
“I mean, tough game to play definitely, 60 shots," Varlamov said in his typical expressionless tone. "I gave up the first shot this game, you know. It was not a great start and it was important for me to bounce back after the last game against Vegas when I gave up seven goals in [not] too many shots. Tough game but on paper with the result, I’m happy and I’m excited to see the guys scoring the goals. You know, when you score five goals, you can give up three and it’s easy to play that way.”
The five-goal outburst continued Colorado's white-hot start at home as the victory pushed them to 5-1-0 at the Pepsi Center this year and maintained their place in the top five of the league in terms of goal-scoring output at home. While the offense has been great at home, 60 shots on goal against? That's the kind of eye-popping number that says something is seriously wrong defensively.
Or was it? The Avalanche had plenty of time to prepare for the Hurricanes with four days off this week in which they watched film and noticed the Hurricanes were a team content to shoot from anywhere and not necessarily worry about high-danger chances.
"That was another thing," Varlamov began to explain. "We had a chance to rest because the beginning of the season is kind of rough on the schedule. We had a couple of good practices and we were ready to play today. We played great and scored some goals."
Goals are great. But again, 60 shots against? Surely something was seriously wrong with the defense, right? For the Colorado netminder, he didn't seem to particularly care much about the number, just that he has an obstructed view of the action.
“We always talk on the ice and in the locker room," Varlamov said. "I always tell them that the most important thing for me is to see the shots, especially from the goal line. We knew that Carolina [likes to shoot] from everywhere so we’ve seen that [tonight]. That was the key [tonight], seeing most of the shots.”
Shoot from everywhere they did, as the heat map will show below:
While the blobs show Carolina poured it on offensively, it also shows the majority of their chances were kept well to the outside. For a 60-shot effort, this was about as easy as it will get for Varlamov and the Avalanche.
The redemption tour for Varlamov is off to a strong start as five of his eight starts have seen him post a .900 save percentage or better and four of those have been .950 or above. His year stats-to-date sit at a goals-against-average of 3.01 and a save percentage of .914, which is grossly misleading thanks to the seven goals against in Vegas.
Thursday night's virtuoso performance against the Hurricanes will be the game everyone remembers years from now thanks to the eye-popping statistics produced but should Varlamov continue to play at this high a level, it will only be a piece of a greater story.
One of a goaltender who put a franchise on his back and carried it back to relevance.