As Colorado Avalanche reach for new heights, more peaks ahead

Apr 18, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Avalanche goaltender Jonathan Bernier (45) before the game against the Nashville Predators in game four of the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

For Game 3 and 4 of the Colorado Avalanche-Nashville Predators series, Pepsi Center in Denver was a tough place for the visitors to play. The crowd was in hysterics. It propelled the Avalanche to victory in Game 3 and almost pulled them back from behind in Game 4.

The thing I missed most about playoff hockey during much of the last decade was the atmosphere at a home game. There’s really no other experience in sports quite like the end-to-end intensity of a consequential hockey game. With the fate of your season resting on a small black disc, every bounce of the puck is mesmerizing. In the playoffs, each save is a close call and goals are either blessings or curses.

The Pepsi Center crowd during the last couple of games had an intensity and optimism for a new era of Avs hockey. After years of being an NHL afterthought, the crowd took over the game. The crowd seemed to know they were part of the event — more self-aware of their influence on the game.

Colorado appears ready to be a part of the new wave sweeping through hockey. The crowd took a lot of pride being a Denver crowd this week. I noticed there was a real desire to set the Denver hockey atmosphere apart from other places. This is part of a trend in the NHL.

This awakening has been about how the identity of a city can bleed into the soul of a hockey team. It really started with Nashville’s desire to put its own brand on hockey. Last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals was full of entertainment from the Nashville crowd.

The traditional hockey journalists and fans on the East Coast hated it. Despite the violence and chaos that accompanies playoff hockey on the ice, having fun around hockey is still frowned upon in some circles. Inducing country music and SEC-style football champs and celebrities invested in the game was treated with disdain by the “hockey elitists.” Nashville had a new kind of hockey fan base they cultivated for years, one that finally received continental attention last spring.

Then, Las Vegas entered the hockey scene. Expansion teams are supposed to be a novelty, but the Vegas Golden Knights are the real deal.

First, the city rallied around the Golden Knights as a mark of city unity after the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival that killed 58 people. The Knights also embraced the city — retiring the number 58 during their last game of the regular season to memorialize the victims.

The Golden Knights franchise has included Vegas theatrics in the experience for their games. They have elaborate pregame ceremonies. The cheesy showmanship works for the Vegas team.

Now that Vegas has advanced to the second round, the hockey world has to grapple with what it means for teams to turn their beloved game into more of an event.

I don’t think anyone expected Denver to match the intensity of Nashville’s SEC-style, country music crowd. In some ways, I think the Pepsi Center crowd exceeded the precedent set in Nashville. It felt like the Avalanche had to fight the Nashville crowd in the first two games of the series, but not that the Predators successfully used much of the crowd’s energy. In Denver, the Predators had to fight the crowd and the Avs rode the wave of energy.

This idea seems to be shaping the identity of the team. In sports, Colorado will always have altitude. If the crowd can make people feel that extra pressure of playing at altitude, then I think it will be a success.

Denver became a place this week where every shift was an uphill battle. Every breath you take makes even elite athletes aware that they are not playing at sea level. I don’t know what else Denver can do to fully adopt the Avalanche in this new era, but I hope they keep looking for ways to maximize the home-ice advantage.

It’s good for hockey. It’s great for the city. It’s fantastic for a young Avalanche team that looks like a future Stanley Cup contender.

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