The ephemeral nature of hot starts

The crowd at Mile High Hockey are understandably jazzed about their team's start. And so they should be. It's oddly appropriate that goaltending is carrying Colorado currently, because it's goaltending that probably sunk the club more than anything else last year. They have Budaj and Raycroft to "thank" for the impressive Matt Duchene I'd say.

The kids have looked good for the Avs thus far but, frankly, if Colorado continues to win with this line-up ... Then a bunch of us would have to re-evaluate all our assumptions about creating winning hockey teams.

— Kent Wilson, Matchsticks & Gasoline

That same Avalanche gang (Mile High Hockey) was about to lynch me for this post earlier in the week, but I'm far from the only one waiting for the clock to strike midnight on this plucky team. Colorado, however, won again on Wednesday night over a team everyone had picked to finish ahead of them, recovering from two early goals against to somehow sneak by the Flames, 3-2.

Enforcer David Koci got one of the goals and netminder Craig Anderson, the toast of the NHL through 150 or so games, was again busy. The Avs won despite being out shot 32-14.

And, after 13 games, they have the best record in the NHL.

Given where pretty much everyone in the hockey world thought they'd be (i.e.), that's pretty impressive. That they're also winning while almost never out shooting their opponents (only two games), or that Anderson has so far posted an amazing .940 save percentage, or that they're leaning so heavily on some young players in key positions — well, that all raises some predictable questions about the sustainability of the hot start.

It's been almost exactly five years since I started this blog (well, the other one anyway), and in that time, I've learned to be leery of reading too heavily into these things. (Or even the cold spurts.) Hockey is just a game where teams and players can, often inexplicably, get hot and pull off the unexpected over 10, 15 or 20-game stretches. The Thrashers, as one example, were one of the league's best teams down the stretch last season, posting a 13-5-0 record during the hardest time of the year to pick up points, and yet they still finished 27th overall.

How were they that bad and yet so good for a quarter of the season? Who knows?

We've seen teams like the 2006-07 Senators come out of the gate 15-2-0 and disintegrate by the all-star break. Heck, even last year, in mid-January, the Habs were riding high with a 27-11-6 record and the Coyotes were in fifth in their conference.

Both imploded soon after.

Even 40-some solid games of hockey, ultimately, may not mean much given just how long and gruelling the NHL season is. Teams make up points quickly and any prolonged slide can undo a great performance over an equal stretch of the season.

Absolutely, Avs fans should enjoy this run and shout down anyone who says otherwise, but if I'm pressed to make a prediction, it's that Colorado still has a real fight on its hands to make the playoffs come April. The good news is that they've already put up more than 20 per cent of the points necessary to get in, so it'd take an epic collapse to truly bottom out, but in a league where so many 90-point teams are missing the playoffs these days, there are still miles to go before they sleep.

Smarter statistical minds than my own have written about the small sample size effect when it comes to things like this (Jonathan Willis does a nice job here, for example) and how, over the long term, there's effectively a minimum and maximum for metrics like shooting and save percentages. Colorado, so far, is over their max on both, and barring something historic happening over an 82-game schedule, they will begin to have far more difficulty scoring goals and keeping them out of their own net. (Even if the latter comes as a result of Anderson taking a breather once in a blue moon.)

But so what? Even if the Avs do fall down to seventh or eighth in the conference and squeak into the postseason, that has to be seen as a major victory for a franchise few saw coming back to life anywhere near this quickly. And I'll bet that, should that happen, Anderson and coach Joe Sacco will be in the running for some hardware in June.

What I won't tell you is that that's where we're headed based on 13 games because, after all, a month into last season, Jacques Lemaire and the Wild were the toast of the league.

And, hey, 12 months later, he's off to a decent start in New Jersey, too.

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