The Avalanche’s playoff hopes will come down to the final game of the regular season.
After beating the Chicago Blackhawks 4-1 Friday night, the St. Louis Blues leapfrogged the Avalanche, landing in the second Western Conference wild-card spot.
So the Avs will be one point behind the Blues headed into the season-concluding head-to-head matchup Saturday night at the Pepsi Center.
Defenseman Erik Johnson is out for the season, however long it lasts.
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov is out for the season, however long it lasts.
The problem there is that at this point, the indisputable conclusion is that Johnson and Varlamov both are statistically likely to be injury prone. Note, I didn’t say they are injury prone. They just tend to get hurt, whether because of extraordinary vulnerability or just bad luck.
Their absences were ready-made rationalizations as the final week of the season opened.
However, as long as the Avalanche doesn’t overly cite those as the excuses for a stretch-run skid — with Nathan MacKinnon and the top line considerably cooling off, Colorado is 2-5-1 in its last eight — there are worse things for this franchise than missing the playoffs the season after its horrific 48-point showing in 2016-17.
There’s still a long way to go for the Avalanche to be a bona fide Stanley Cup contender.
An orange-slices season of making the post-season, meeting Nashville in the first round and lasting a round or two could be counterproductive for the Avalanche in the long run if it’s allowed to produce a false sense of cockiness.
Joe Sakic deserves mountains of credit for engineering this turnaround, with the small-print footnote that he also was in charge when the Avalanche slid from the incredibly consistent 112-point season in Patrick Roy’s first season behind the bench in 2013-14. He was patient, and his iconic status with the franchise and in this market stretched his safety net.
The truth is, in the wake of the dreadful 2016-17, not even Sakic expected the Avalanche to be in the playoffs this season. To his credit, his approach has been consistent patience, whether than has meant biding his time until closing what at this point still seems the absurdly unbalanced Matt Duchene trade; or passing on the chance to give up assets and acquire rentals and/or make the team only marginally better for the short term.
Regardless of what happens as the Avalanche closes out 2017-18, only an idiot or a reaching regular purveyor of contrived controversy would portray this season off as a failure.
MacKinnon’s breakout season, underscoring that he deserves to be mentioned in the same paragraphs as No. 1 overall draft choices billed as generational (e.g., Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews), is the major cause for optimism.
But there’s a lot more.
The Avalanche is on the right track.
Making the postseason for the first time since 2014 would lead to a fun experience for those on the ice, in the front office, in the seats and in front of the HDTV.
I’m not saying this team should tank it in the final two games. I’m saying there might be something appropriate and motivational about missing the post-season again.
Not quite reaching the carrot wouldn’t be all bad.
It would set up the next step in the progressive franchise recovery.
And because of the additional motivation, there are a lot worse things that can happen to this franchise.
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Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including “March 1939: Before the Madness,” about the first NCAA basketball tournament and its champions; and “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” about the landmark 1969 Texas-Arkansas football game and the events swirling around it. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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