The Avalanche is already in playoff mode.
Why do I say that?
Because after their embarrassing 7-1 loss to the Kings Thursday night, the Avs brought out the playoff cliches. And they’re all fitting in the most testing postseason in all of professional sports. In a potentially seven-game series, the ups and downs are part of what hockey coaches increasingly love to call “the process.”
As happened during the the Avalanche’s deep-into-the-postseason runs in the past, and increasingly is the norm, media and public will overreact to the fluctuations in series, as if each win should have the mayor’s office finalizing plans for the parade and each loss — even the first one in a series — means all hopes for a championship are extinguished. (Those especially are easy from-the-template positions to take for those who didn’t pay attention until the playoffs.)
Even after that loss to the Anze Kopitar-led Kings, the Avalanche was 5-2 in its last seven and remained in the first of the two wild card spots in the Western Conference, with the Kings moving up to third place in the Pacific Division and the Anaheim Ducks dropping to the second wild card slot.
And the Avs had all the lines down pat.
You gotta have short memories.
Gotta flush that one down the toilet.
Gotta learn from it.
Unless you fail to do all of that and let a decisive defeat affect the collective psyche, a 7-1 loss isn’t any more costly than a 1-0 loss, right?
Actually, the the way it worked out, with the Ducks and Kings swapping spots in the conference playoff hierarchy and the Avalanche staying put, the loss didn’t seem immediately costly.
“You gotta be careful watching the scoreboard,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “Because it’s wasted emotion. We’re concentrating on what we have to do to get in and how many games we have to win and how we have to prepare. You start watching what everybody else is doing, you start riding an emotional roller coaster for no reason.
“Yeah, I love to look at the scoreboard to see if we got help. But we’re not expecting any help. This is on us and we know that there’s a tough schedule coming up. We’re going to play eight more games like that against teams like that and we have to find a way to get it done. I think that was a lot for our young guys tonight, it’s a good learning lesson and we have to be better.”
The bigger issue was how the Avalanche played and how to avoid making it a pattern.
“It’s one game,” said Erik Johnson. “We haven’t had a bad game like that for a while. We didn’t play very well and we know it. We’ll fix it and get better next game.”
So what now?
In short … bring on Vegas.
The Avs have eight games left.
The first task, of course, is to make the playoffs. After all this team has been through, it won’t take that for granted. Saying the Avalanche needs to maintain momentum going into the postseason is obvious in the sense that meandering down the stretch might leave Colorado out of the postseason, anyway.
But the Avalanche needs to maintain momentum.
Although Bednar has taken care to lighten and even eliminate Semyon Varlamov’s off-day workload, the tricky part now is to make decisions that both get Varlamov primed for the postseason, when playing every other day or three days per week is the norm, and avoid having him enter the postseason pushing the envelope of fatigue and overwork. Yes, that means trying to play Jonathan Bernier in a couple of remaining games. That also would leave Bernier better primed to step in during a series if Varlamov falters.
The contending field for the final spots has shrunk. With only St. Louis and Dallas on the outside and within striking distance of a wild-card spot, the Avs not only remain in control of their own destiny, they’re in control, period. Ten points in the final eight games should be enough.
Next up is a home and home with the Knights, Saturday at the Pepsi Center and Monday in Las Vegas.
The Knights are one of the most remarkable stories in all of pro sports in recent years, and it’s staggering to even think of the furor if the equivalent scenario was playing out in the NFL.
The last three NHL expansion teams posted 39 points (Atlanta Thrashers in 1999-2000), 68 points (Minnesota Wild in 2000-01) and 71 points (Columbus Blue Jackets, also in 2000-01). That was the pre-shootout and pre-salary cap eras, of course, but that doesn’t diminish the comparative immediate prowess of the Knights.
The Knights come to Denver with an amazing 100 points, at 47-21-6, and most significant, if the standings don’t change, this will be a preview of a first-round Vegas-Colorado series — the result of the pairing between the second-best division winner in the West and the better of the two wild cards.
The Avs also could drop to the second wild card and face Nashville in the opening round or move up to third in the Central, which would put them against the Winnipeg Jets in a divisional 2 vs. 3 matchup. (Yes, the mix of using divisional and conference standings in coming up with the matchups is a mess, and 1 through 8 slotting would make more sense.)
This is one of those times when conventional wisdom is wisdom, period.
The Knights are the draw the Avalanche should be hoping for. The parallel here is the Avalanche’s own remarkable turnaround from a horrible lockout-shortened 2013 season to a 112-point showing the next season, Patrick Roy’s first as coach. The Avs were one of the league’s top stories that season, then hit the wall in the postseason, blowing the 3-1 lead over the Wild in the first round and losing in seven games.
There’s no guarantee that the Knights will fizzle out in the first round, and they have defied all convention so far, but playing with house money in the postseason is not necessarily an advantage. The sharp-edged high-emotion NHL postseason requires desperation — there’s another favorite NHL term — and the realization that this season will be considered a resounding success regardless of what happens in the postseason can dull that edge.
But most of that also again can apply to the Avs, coming off that 48-point monstrosity of a year ago, and one of major tests will be to avoid that feeling of giddiness about just making the postseason. The Avs need to play — both now and in the postseason — as if anything short of a deep run is a failure.
I keep coming back to this: Now, the Avs are in good shape. They’re in good shape because if they miss the playoffs, they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves.
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Terry Frei 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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