Defense is what makes Avalanche so scary

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Joe Sakic has pieced together one of the NHL’s best rosters with the Colorado Avalanche, and it is starting to get on a roll and play up to its potential.

Its thoroughly dominating 5-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night was the Avalanche’s fifth win in a row and improved them to 9-2-1 over the past 12 games. This game was about as one-sided as any game in the NHL this season with the Avalanche outshooting Minnesota by a 55-20 margin, while attempting 79 total shot attempts to Minnesota’s 39.

That sort of territorial edge has become a trend in Colorado over the past couple of weeks, especially as the roster starts to get healthy.

When you think of this Avalanche team and what makes it so dominant the first thing you think of is probably their superstar top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. And for good reason. They are great, and as good of a line as you will find anywhere in the league. They are the foundation of a potential championship roster.

But what could take this Avalanche team to an entirely different level is the makeup of its defense. Because it is scary good, and it might already be the best unit in the league.

Cale Makar and Bowen Byram were back in the lineup on Thursday and it gave the Avalanche close to its full complement of defenders (they are still without Erik Johnson and Conor Timmins).

It is simply a sensational unit from top to bottom full of impact players, almost all of whom are just now starting to enter their prime years.

Makar, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, is an emerging superstar and could be in the Norris Trophy discussion within a year or two. He is that good already. Heck, had he not missed so many games this season he might have entered that discussion this season. With half of a season still to go, maybe he still will. He is only 22 years old and already has a knack for controlling the game.

They are also still reaping the benefits of the Matt Duchene trade from a couple of years ago that produced Sam Girard, who is having a monster season of his own, and the first-round draft pick that resulted in Byram. Byram and Girard are 19 and 22, respectively, and still have their best days ahead of them.

Then there is Devon Toews, one of their big offseason additions this year. They landed him for the small price of two second-round draft picks and are being rewarded with a quietly dominant season. His offensive numbers may not match Makar or Girard, but he is a perfect fit for the Avalanche’s transitional game and has been a sensational possession driver this season. In Thursday’s game, for example, the Avalanche had a 30-6 shot attempt edge and 18-1 shot on goal advantage with him on the ice during 5-on-5 play.

When you look at their performance on a team level, it is hard to argue that there is anybody better at the moment.

They allow the fewest shots on goal per game (by a wide margin). The fewest shot attempts per game (by a wide margin). The fewest scoring chances and expected goals (via Natural Stat Trick) per 60 minutes. And they have the NHL’s second best penalty kill behind only the Boston Bruins. The only thing that has kept them from being the top goals against team is the fact that their goaltending has been a little inconsistent.

Over the past six games they have allowed the following shot totals: 20, 22, 28, 18, 14, 14. They have not allowed more than 30 shots on goal in a game since January 31, a stretch of 18 consecutive games. In five of those games they have allowed 20 shots or less. They have seven such games for the season. It is just a staggering defensive performance. And what makes it so dominant is that it does not come at the expense of offense. This is not some team playing a dull, conservative system that slows the game to a crawl. They can still swarm you in waves offensively and dominant with the puck. They are also as good as it gets offensively in the league, with the defense being a huge part of that.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.