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Klee: Escape-artist Avalanche still needs Varly

By: Paul Klee
April 18, 2014 Updated: April 18, 2014 at 9:48 pm
Caption +
Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov (1) from Russia looks on against the Minnesota Wild during the first period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series on Thursday, April 17, 2014, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

DENVER — The Avs stole the Central Division, broke records and brought playoff hockey back to Colorado. The School of Roy added a must-read chapter in coaching.

But if the Avs fall short of the Stanley Cup finals, would they be disappointed in this season?

"Seriously? I mean, yeah," Game 1 savior Erik Johnson said with a look that could stop a Zamboni in its place. "That's the goal. We're not a flash in the pan.

"We're not here to win a game or two and playing golf at the end of April."

Come on, fellas. False hope cuts like a knife when it's exposed.

Be straight with us: Is this truly a team that can raise the Stanley Cup?

"Yes," said Max Talbot, who helped the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup.

Well, then. If these are the expectations, the Avs have their work cut out. Aside from a heart-attack final minute that could double as a Hollywood sports movie starring Kevin Costner, Game 1 offered little evidence the Avs are a Cup contender.

Colorado 5, Minnesota 4 (OT) is deceiving. If the Avs are going to escape the Wild — much less realize their lofty expectations — one thing must happen.

Semyon Varlamov must be better in net. He must be regular-season Varly. In his playoff debut Thursday, the pressure of the playoffs seemed to creep under his skin like a Matt Cooke cheapshot.

Minnesota's first goal, a rebound job, is one Varly usually stops in his sleep. Another shot hopped off his pads and jumped around the crease like a Slinky.

It was all very un-Varly. Frayed nerves? The Avs played afraid, hockey herd.

"I remember my first (playoff) game. You're a little bit nervous," coach Patrick Roy said Friday. "Even if you're well-prepared, you're always a bit nervous. You're anxious to see how things will go. Breaking the ice is sometimes the toughest thing to do."

Eleven players on the Avs roster made their playoff debuts Thursday.

"That's a lot," Roy said.

Among goalies, Varly wasn't alone in his shaky start. The first seven games of these playoffs averaged more than seven goals. Minnesota should be more nervous about Ilya Bryzgalov than Colorado with Varly. The Avs will score goals against Bryzgalov.

This series — not to mention their silver-cup aspirations — comes down to Varly.

"We have one of the best, if not the best, goalie in the league," Talbot said. "That's always a good sign if you want to go deep into the playoffs."

With the Avs trailing by a goal with 3:01 left in regulation, Roy turned heads at Pepsi Center by pulling his goalie early. Early for most coaches, at least.

Roy is not most coaches. He revealed Friday he once pulled a goalie with 17 minutes left. Facing another deficit, he once yanked his goalie in the second period.

"You just look at the score: do you need a goal, do you need two goals, do you need three goals?" Roy said.

"I know one day it might bite us," he added. "But if we benefit it's a long-term thing."

The Avs have their expectations. Mine are like this: I expect the Avs will advance to the Western Conference finals. Anything less - or more - would be a surprise.

Considering his pedigree in high-pressure moments, it's worth noting Varly appeared rattled by the playoff environment. He's won gold at the world championships and appeared in three playoff series before this one.

But the playoffs have a way of turning steel nerves into flimsy Red Vines.

"I had, at times, goosebumps for how loud it was in that building," Roy said of the comeback win.

Is Varly's Game 1 a cause for concern? I don't think so.

But check back after Game 2 to make sure.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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