(Sports Network) - After finishing 29th out of 30 NHL teams in the standings last year, the Colorado Avalanche are eager to get off to a good start in 2011-12. The Avs will get a tough test in tonight's season and home opener, as they host the Detroit Red Wings at the Pepsi Center.
With just two trips to the postseason over the last five years, the Avalanche are a team searching for a new identity. The organization succeeded early and often upon switching locales from Quebec City to Denver and that helped set the bar for the Avalanche at an impossibly high level. The franchise won its first Stanley Cup title in 1995-96 -- the first season for the club in Denver -- and the Avs added another championship five years later.
The inconsistency has taken its toll at the gate too. The Avs once had a sellout streak that lasted from 1995-2006, but last year the club finished 24th in the NHL in attendance.
That's not to say the Avs are boring too watch. The team has loads of talent, especially up front, and maybe someday Matt Duchene, or even Gabriel Landeskog, will deliver the team a third Stanley Cup title. But, even though they are some nice pieces in place, the overall picture in Colorado is still fuzzy.
The club's main problem that caused them to finish 14th in the West last year was an inability to stop the opposition from scoring. In fact, Colorado was dead last in the NHL with 3.50 goals allowed per game.
Colorado general manager Greg Sherman hopes to have fixed the defensive issue by signing a pair of big veteran defensemen (Jan Hejda and Shane O'Brien) and trading for 23-year-old goalie Semyon Varlamov. The young Russian netminder showed flashes of brilliance over the last three years in Washington, but whether he can be a consistent No. 1 for the Avs is another story altogether.
Many eyes will be on the 18-year-old Landeskog tonight, as the second overall pick of the 2011 draft is slated to make his NHL debut. The Swedish left winger is touted as an NHL-ready player who will at least play a strong defensive game even if he doesn't score at first.
Also, Duchene, who is still just 20 years of age, is back for a third season in the NHL and all signs point to him continuing his ascent as one of the best young centermen in the league. Duchene finished third in voting for the Calder Trophy in 2009-10 and last year improved on his rookie totals with 27 goals and 40 assists.
But, Colorado's prospects for a playoff run this season will ultimately rely heavily on the play of Varlamov. With no big-time goaltending prospects in the system, the Avalanche acquired Varlamov from the Capitals for a hefty price, sending Washington a first-round pick in the 2012 draft and a second-rounder in either 2012 or '13.
Varlamov has 59 regular-season games and 10 playoff appearances to his credit since breaking onto the NHL scene in 2008-09. Last year, he went 11-9-5 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .924 save percentage with the Caps. After the season, the rumor mill suggested a disgruntled Varlamov, who took a back seat in Washington to Michal Neuvirth, was planning on jumping ship to the KHL, but the Avs convinced him to stay in North America with a three-year, $8.5 million contract.
Colorado also inked veteran Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a two-year, $2.5 million contract this summer. Giguere is no longer the goaltender who won a Conn Smythe Trophy and won a Stanley Cup title with Anaheim, but he should provide insurance if Varlamov is injured or ineffective.
Meanwhile, Detroit, which has made the playoffs in 20 straight seasons and has won the Central Division in 10 of the last 12 campaigns, began 2011-12 with Friday's victory over visiting Ottawa. Cory Emmerton had a goal and an assist to lead the Red Wings to a 5-3 decision at Joe Louis Arena.
Todd Bertuzzi, Nicklas Lidstrom, Jiri Hudler and Ian White all had goals for the Red Wings, who were eliminated by San Jose in seven games in the conference semifinals last season.
After jumping out to a 4-0 lead in the first 40 minutes, Detroit did allow the Senators to make a game of it in the third period.
"They worked themselves back in the game and we can't allow that," said Lidstrom. "We have to work on that if we're going to be successful this season."
Jimmy Howard stopped 29-of-32 shots in the win for Detroit.
The Red Wings played without defenseman Mike Commodore on Friday and he is expected to sit out this evening's test with a knee injury as well.
The Avs and Red Wings split four meetings in 2010-11 and each team has four wins over the last eight encounters. Detroit has taken 10 of the last 14 meetings in Denver.