Through the past two months, and with seeming justification, the Avalanche players and coach Jared Bednar have waved off mentions of the dreadful season of a year ago.
The reasoning? This is a different, largely remade team. Younger, faster, potentially more resilient. It’s ridiculous to ask guys who a year ago at this time were playing college hockey (i.e., Alexander Kerfoot and Tyson Jost) or were with other organizations (i.e., Samuel Girard, Mark Barberio, Nail Yakupov, Jonathan Bernier and Colin Wilson) to make comparisons to early last season.
But this is scary, potentially ominous.
Last season, the Avalanche was a decent 9-9 when it went 0-4-1 in a horrendous homestand and in the last game lost defenseman Erik Johson for 12 weeks with a broken fibula. Colorado was without injured captain Gabe Landeskog for all five games. The slide had started, the Avalanche never recovered and went on to post only 48 points, the lowest total in the NHL in 17 years.
Now, only a little deeper into the season, the Avalanche came into a five-game homestand at 11-8-2 — and on Tuesday night, finished the Pepsi Center run with a 4-2 loss to the dreadful Buffalo Sabres. Nathan MacKinnon scored twice, but that was it, and the Avalanche finished 1-4 on the homestand, with only a win over Winnipeg to show for it. Colorado was without suspended captain Gabe Landeskog for the final four games.
So … sound familiar?
The worst team in the league, Buffalo came into Tuesday night on a 48-point pace. They had, and still have, the potential to be as bad this season as the Avalanche was last season.
This was a dreadful loss to a dreadful team, fittingly finishing off the homestand. At 12-12-2, the Avalanche is last in the Central Division, and ahead of only Edmonton and Arizona in the Western Conference. Already. Thanks to this slide at home.
If Disney On Ice has as many problems in its upcoming eight-performance stand in the same arena, stars Olaf, Kristoff, Anna, Elsa, Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Jessie, plus Mickey and Minnie Mouse, all will be embarrassed.
Now we find out what this reconfigured team is really made of.
Albeit with a significantly different roster, last year’s team fell apart under similar circumstances.
“I don’t really to think of last year that much,” said Mikko Rantanen. “It’s a new year. It was a tough homestand for sure, we can’t be happy with four losses out of five. It’s not good enough. But there are a lot of games left, and we have to go on the road and come up with a lot of points there.”
Near Rantanen, MacKinnon was leaning back against the wall at his stall, with a line of blood streaking down the ridge of his nose. He again rejected comparisons to last season.
“What do you mean?” he asked me. “It’s a new season. It’s a new team. What does it have to do with last year.”
Well, actually … a lot.
Because all remember what happened from there, how hopes of remaining in the playoff hunt were transformed to hopes just to get through the season short of complete and utter embarrassment.
This doesn’t have to be a disaster. Expectations were reconfigured, too.
This is a different team, one that to its credit has been energetic and entertaining, yet only the most blinkered were fooling themselves into thinking that such a major reconstruction project wouldn’t run into problem stretches along the way.
Again, the realistic goals would be to remain in playoff contention for much of the season and, more important, generate hope that the franchise is on its way back.
“It’s not disastrous,” Bednar said of the homestand. “It’s concerning because we’re not playing the way we can play. We’ve played much better over the course of the season. We look like we’re tired. I don’t believe we are. We’ve been giving them ample time rest, but that’s just how we’re playing right now. We’re not on top of it, skating the way we can skate.
“There are some puck decisions and things like that in there, too. It’s a young team and I think we’re going to go through some things like this, and I think we’ll work our way out of it. The disappointing part is we’re dropping in the standings and we’re losing points … We want to stay in this thing. We’ll continue to work and do the right things and work our way out of this, but it’s going to get tougher and tougher. This road trip coming up is a doozy.”
The four games on the trip are at Tampa Bay, Florida, Pittsburgh and Washington.
If the Avalanche doesn’t snap out of this funk, at least to the point of playing well enough to steal some points on the trip, the comparisons to last season will start coming faster and more furious.
Whether they want to hear them or not.
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Denver-based journalist Terry Frei writes two commentaries a week about the Avalanche 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 the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair” about Colorado’s Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion; and “Third Down and a War to Go,” about the 1942 football national champion Wisconsin Badgers and the players’ subsequent World War II heroism. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
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