Johnson: Ahead of his former team’s visit, Sarich thriving on surprisingly good Avalanche squad
Veteran defenceman getting more minutes than he did in a part-time role with Calgary last season
Outshooting the invading Colorado Avalanche, badly, and piling up the power play chances, Sid, Gene and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins glam-gang weren’t merely knocking on the door this night. They were attempting to battering ram bludgeon it off its hinges.
Yet the stalwart J.S. Giguere was by no small miracle holding it on its hinges.
So come the third period, the customary 18,387 partisans on hand at the Consol Energy Center were naturally becoming a teensy bit antsy.
“The place,” recalls Cory Sarich with no small sense of amusement, “had gone completely quiet.
“Well, not completely quiet. You could hear Patrick. He was pretty much the only guy yelling. In the whole building. Everything else might’ve gone silent, but not Patrick. Loud and clear. It was kinda funny. Usually you can hear him above the noise if a building’s going crazy.
“It’s that passion he has. What he’s famous for. He does it in the right way and it filters down to us players.”
On the strength of a strike from skipper Gabriel Landeskog and Giguere’s 34 spit-backs, the Avalanche held on to win, 1-0, that night.
Along with pretty much every other night, before and since, as well.
At 12-1, their record is the NHL’s best. Defensively, they’re on the hook for an astonishingly-low 1.46 goals-against per outing. They’re young, dynamic, just beginning to realize the full power of their potential.
And Sarich, the ol’ down-the-woodwork molar-rattler, is ecstatic to be along for the ride.
“This,” says the former Calgary Flame, awaiting the arrival of his old employers for Friday’s tilt at the Pepsi Center, “is a first for me, a start of this nature. It’s been fun. Really fun. The biggest thing is that our effort is there every night. And the nights when we haven’t been at our best, for whatever reason, we’ve received great goaltending.
“It’s been everybody. That ‘total team effort’ you always hear about.”
For Sarich, the switch has re-energized his compromised competitive batteries. After patrolling the blueline for six years in Flames’ togs, at 35 he didn’t fit the organization’s new demographic. Reduced to a two-thirds-time — 28 starts in the lockout-shortened 42 game schedule — player, he was peddled along with slick winger Alex Tanguay (unavailable to play Friday due to a knee injury) to the Avs on June 17th for winger David Jones and defenceman Shane O’Brien.
Denver has provided that intoxicating fresh start he’s hoped for, and more.
“The people in place (in Calgary), as far as who’s calling the shots, had kinda already pigeonholed me. So . . . I still feel I have lots to offer. I was just hoping coming to Colorado would be a good shot at doing that.
“And so far it has.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, to be honest. I assumed they brought me in for some leadership, an older guy, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to be used in a limited role again or given the ice that it turns out I have received.
“It’s been really welcoming. I played a few exhibition games and they told me they thought I was playing really well, wanted me to get off to a good to the season and they plugged me in with Andre Benoit. I’ve been there ever since. And it’s been a good match.”
Bigger role. Better team. What’s not to like?
The Avalanche are disputably among the stories of the season so far, blessed with an almost absurd abundance of youthful attacking talent — Landeskog, Matt Duchene, PA Parenteau, Ryan O’Reilly. And now Mighty Mouse, Nathan MacKinnon.
And if they’re flying this high now, imagine them in a year or two . . .
“I experienced a little of that in Tampa,” says Sarich, harkening back to the lead-up to his and the Lightning’s 2004 successful Stanley Cup run. “We had a few high draft picks and for a while we . . . uh, weren’t very good. You could see the potential there, though. So I guess it’s a little bit similar here.
“I’ve played against teams like that. Look at Chicago. Look at Pittsburgh. They went through some rough patches and for the first few years weren’t all that great. But then you see the young talent starting to pile up in the organization, get the right person in to give them direction and they wind up Stanley Cup champions.
“I think our talent level and depth is there. We just need that work ethic to make it all happen.”
And then, of course, there’s Roy. Saint Patrick. That right person he spoke of to give it all direction. From opening night, when the Avs made their intentions clear by putting the Anaheim Mighty Ducks to the sword 6-1, he’s been a lightning rod of entertainment. There is that now-famous shouting match, topped off by some theatrical glass shaking, with counterpart Bruce Boudreau over an alleged cheap shot at MacKinnon (“It’s not our job to be yapping at players,” Boudreau fumed later. “I told him that’s bush league”).
Roy’s unvarnished, almost visceral emotional energy has lifted these Avalanche to unexpected heights, fully justified his hiring, and firmly entrenched him as the early front-runner for the Jack Adams Trophy as coach of the year.
“First and foremost,” says Sarich, “he makes you want to play for him. You’ve seen how hard he worked, how much he cared, how badly he wanted to win, so individually and as a group you don’t want to let him down in any of those departments. It’s been a good fit, for all of us. Not just the younger guys. He has a different philosophy from any other coach I’ve ever played for. So the whole thing has, for me, been fresh, challenging.
“I was fortunate enough to have played against Patrick. Having watched him growing up, we all saw what a tremendous competitor he is. Is, not was. That hasn’t changed. He’s brought that to coaching and he demands it of you as a player, too.
“His attention to detail I don’t think gets the attention it deserves. He’s a real thinker of the game. And he’s willing to adapt, willing to listen, too.”
For the Sarich family, the transition has gone smoothly to a city very similar to this one. The kids, eight, six and four, have adapted quickly, as has mom Reagan. About the only family member in a bit of snit is the pet pooch, a “Labradoodle.”
“We live in a smaller place here,” laughed Sarich. “So I think the dog’s depressed. We’re not inner-city but it has a little bit more of that feel. Before we were way out in the suburbs.
“So he doesn’t have the size of yard he’s used to.”
Ah, but for the betterment of the whole, individual sacrifices must be made, both canine and human.
And despite the change in philosophy for the big team in this town, Cory Sarich, as he awaits the arrival of that team on Friday, says hasn’t lost any of his fondness for the town itself.
“We have great friends in Calgary. It wasn’t just six years of hockey. I was there three or four years before that. So it’s been 10 years that Calgary was my home. And I think it’ll always be home for us, once hockey’s all said and done.
“But we’re in Denver now. And it’s an exciting time for this team.
“So far, so good.
“I couldn’t have written it any better. I’m enjoying every minute.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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