Funny how perception works.
Both the Nuggets and Avalanche went into the final game of the 2017-18 regular-season knowing that a win in what amounted to a play-in game would get them a playoff berth as the No. 8 Western Conference seed.
A loss would send them into the off-season.
At home, the Avalanche beat St. Louis and advanced to the first-round series against Nashville. The Blues were done.
On the road, the Nuggets lost to Minnesota in overtime, with the unforgettable summarizing image of 6-foot-10 Nikola Jokic being forced to the corner rather than fighting to move in the general direction of the hoop in the final seconds of regulation.
The Timberwolves got the No. 8 seed and went on to face the Houston Rockets in the first round. (They’re down 3-1 in the series heading into Wednesday’s Game 5.)
So the Stan Kroenke empire at least had one team in the NBA or NHL playoffs, for the first time since 2014. The Avalanche getting the series to six games also maxed-out the possible home dates for a one-round-and-done team without the home-ice advantage.
It seems as if the Predators-Avalanche handshake line just ended.
Rather, though, it’s been a few days, and the reasonable consensus is that — stop me if you’ve heard this before — that the Avalanche had a terrific season, falling just one point short of doubling its total from the horror show that was 2016-17. They have no shot of pulling off duplicating that feat, since it would require piling up 189 points — a mathematical impossibility.
The bar is set for next season for the Avalanche.
Playoffs or bust.
Go deeper, perhaps to the Western Conference finals, or be considered disappointing.
Continue the progress.
Reward the cadre of loyal fans who stuck with this franchise through thick and thin, and retain and add to allure for those being brought back or diving in for the first time.
To their credit, that’s how the Avalanche players are thinking, too. The league’s youngest team got a taste of the playoffs in the franchise’s first appearance since Nathan MacKinnon’s rookie season, and MacKinnon and others addressed the point of heightened expectations — accepting that they are inevitable and even welcome.
Cut through all the small-print disclaimers about the Nuggets’ season — mainly the inexplicable losses to horrible teams. They ended up 46-36, similar to and even arguably better than the Avalanche’s 43-30-9 record. (An overtime or shootout loss is worth one point in the standings and is nudged to a third column, but it’s still a loss.)
As maddening as the Nuggets’ mercurial play was, they staged a stirring stretch run — one that was far better than the Avalanche’s closing weeks — and came up only seconds short of essentially duplicating the hockey team’s accomplishment. They had won six in a row going into that night at Minneapolis. The younger Jokic is at the same sort of crossroads MacKinnon faced before responding with a validating season. The challenge is to play like a star every game-night — and not only often enough to tantalize. Jamal Murray is the real deal and Gary Harris, when used, is a difference-maker, too.
So in a way, I don’t think the Nuggets have gotten enough credit for getting above .500 for the first time in five seasons and coming so close to making the post-season. Absolutely, much of the reaction to the Avalanche season is based on the magnitude of the recovery. The Nuggets didn’t have as far to climb.
OK, I’ve handed out the orange slices.
The point is, the Avalanche and Nuggets should face similar expectations next season.
Don’t just make the playoffs, advance in them.
Otherwise, the Nuggets essentially will be rewarded for fouling up in the final seconds at Minnesota.
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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 “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the national champion 1942 Wisconsin Badgers and their wartime heroics, and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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