EDITOR’S NOTE: Mile High Sports Magazine contributing writer and author Terry Frei has covered the Avalanche since its 1995 arrival in Denver. He will be writing commentaries during Colorado’s 2021 playoff run for the MHS site.
OK, Avalanche fans.
Not that you needed it, but now you have my permission to …
I’ll stick to this: That reaction was premature before Tuesday night. The Avs’ 3-2 overtime loss at home to Vegas made pressing that panic button much more justifiable, now that they trail 3-2 in the West Division second-round series heading into Game 6 on the road Thursday night.
As long as home-ice held up, as it did through the first four games, the Avs were in control.
There was plenty of blame to go around for the loss, starting with Jared Bednar’s decision to break up the Nathan MacKinnon-centered top line, sliding Gabe Landeskog to the second line. My quibble is that if you bought into the premise that panicking was unjustified with the series tied and the Avs still holding the home-ice advantage, the tinkering with perhaps the league’s top line sent the wrong message.
The Avs hadn’t lost a home game in regulation since March 8, and although Bednar said that returning home was heartening, his action showed he mistrusted what that meant.
That said, to focus solely on that decision would be ridiculous.
The Avs blew a 2-0 lead, and Brandon Saad’s gift goal in the final second of the first period, with Marc-Andre Fleury whiffing on the shot, should have propelled Colorado.
The costly turnovers stood out. MacKinnon didn’t hit the scoresheet and Mikko Rantanen had one assist. They have to be better, regardless of the lines.
The Avs failing to even get a shot on net on a third-period power play was a glaring failure, especially considering the officiating clearly was of the no-autopsy, no-call playoff variety Andy Van Hellemond would have endorsed. That was the Avs’ only power play of the night.
Is it over?
Of course not.
“I think the mood’s pretty good,” Bednar said Wednesday. “We know what we have to do. We have to go into Vegas and win one game and give ourselves the opportunity to come home and take another kick at it, which we had last night.” He emphasized the Avs need to clean up their game avoid creating “home run” opportunities for the Golden Knights. “I don’t see any reason why our team can’t play with the same attack mentality we had last night and go in and get the job done,” he added. “We’ve played some nice games in Vegas this year, although it wasn’t so far in this series. We can go in there and play well.”
It can be done. In theory. There’s even the legendary Avalanche example to cite, the one that culminated 20 years ago today. Trailing 3-2 in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Devils, the Avalanche — largely because of an incredible effort from Patrick Roy that kept them in the game despite being monumentally outplayed in the first period — won Game 6 on the road. The Avs then claimed the Cup when Alex Tanguay scored twice in the 3-1 win at the Pepsi Center in Game 7. I’ll never forget Devils coach Larry Robinson saying after Game 7 that, in truth, the Devils lost the series in Game 6.
That 2001 Presidents’ Trophy-winning team also had to go seven games to beat the Kings in the second round. Believe me, there was considerable gloom and doom around here when the Kings won both Games 5 and 6 and seemed to have claimed “momentum.” (In honor of Peter Forsberg, thinking back to THAT Game 7 makes my spleen hurt.)
This team, also the Presidents’ Trophy winner, seems to be failing the test of trying to measure up to the 2001 champions. One asterisk is that it predated the salary cap era and loading up a roster was more possible, so direct which-was-better comparisons are perilous and to a point irrelevant.
Granted, sometimes it’s easy to overrate what history and the precedents of a franchise’s part mean to today’s players. When Ray Bourque took the handoff from Joe Sakic on June 9, 2001, Alex Newhook was 5 months old. Cale Makar — named Wednesday as one of three finalists for the Noris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman — was 2. (The other Norris finalists are the Lightning’s Victor Hedman and the Rangers’ Adam Fox.) Tyson Jost and Samuel Girard were 3. Even MacKinnon was only 5.
Makar Wednesday said he was gratified to be a Norris finalist, but noted that isn’t a major concern now. Turning to the series, he said no when asked if the Avs had gotten comfortable after taking the 2-0 lead.
“I think maybe just a little bit disconnected as a team and just not working as a unit on the ice,” Makar said. “I think everything’s been kind of leading up since kind of that third game, we’ve been getting more momentum. Especially last night, a couple of bad breaks there. It is what it is and that’s just the way hockey goes. I feel as a team we still have a great mindset going into the next game and obviously the goal is to come back to Denver.”
If Bednar called upon his boss, Sakic, to talk to the Avalanche about that 2001 Cup run, including the comeback from the 3-2 deficit in the Finals after many were writing off Colorado, it would be a better move than continuing to break up the top line.
With so much emphasis placed on the Avs’ shortcomings, it’s tempting to underplay that this isn’t happening in a vacuum. Though the Covid-caused temporary realignment and all-divisional scheduling has made it more difficult to directly compare teams this season — it basically has been four leagues — it very well could end up that these are the two best teams in the NHL.
But that wouldn’t be much solace if the Avs let this series get away.
Here’s Joe Sakic’s recent additional explanation of the famous Cup handoff to Bourque, from my omnibus interview of him for Mile High Sports Magazine’s 200th issue in December 2020
Terry Frei is a seven-time winner of a state’s sportswriter of the year award. Amongh his seven books are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” “Third Down and a War to Go,” “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age,” and “Olympic Affair.” Info is available on his web site, www.terryfrei.com