Frei: Here come the Knights … now and perhaps in the postseason

And this was just the start: Kings center Anze Kopitar (11) celebrates his goal in the first period against the Avalanche. It was the first of his four on the night. Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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.

*   *   *

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. 

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @tfrei

Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:

Nathan MacKinnon’s MVP talk becoming more legit

Amid March Madness, how the NBA should emulate the NHL 

Nathan, good intentions, bad idea 

Fourteen years ago, Steve Moore played his final game for the Avalanche

Avalanche going into final month in control of own destiny

Is Duncan Siemens becoming more than an “organization” guy?

At least here, NHL trading deadline was much ado about very, very little

Avalanche standing pat wouldn’t be irresponsible inertia

If the NHL stays away again, USA Hockey should be all-collegians

Just your average Harvard guy from West Vancouver

As MacKinnon skates closer to return, Avs have stayed in the playoff hunt

Bowman Brothers Reunion with the Colorado Eagles in final season as Avs’ ECHL affiliate

The longer Bernier can hold the net, the better off the Avalanche will be

Magazine: Interview with DU local product — and Olympian — Troy Terry  

Magazine: Nordic Combined ace Bryan Fletcher beat childhood cancer 

Magazine: Arvada-raised Olympic snowboarder Chris Corning  

Magazine: Mikaela Shiffrin can add Olympic glory in amazing season

Magazine: Lindsey Vonn shooting to stay healthy, go for gold 

Magazine: Lakewood’s Nicole Hensley is USA’s backup goalie

Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett

Don’t let MacKinnon injury knock the Avalanche off course

NHL, Avs heading back to work, not Olympics

A Tale of Avalanche All-Stars, past and present

All Aboard! Avalanche bandwagon gains momentum

A kid in Long Beach and his first stick

Jonathan Bernier on taking over the Avalanche net

Nathan MacKinnon doesn’t mind not being recognized … at the mall

Glory Days … Now get Springsteen out of your head

Sakic/Bednar and Elway/Joseph: Eerie parallels

Carl Soderberg goes from albatross to asset

Magazine: Jim Montgomery is Mile High Sports’ college coach of the year

Magazine: Will Butcher is Mile High Sports’ college athlete of the year 

Varlamov playing better than the numbers might indicate 

At the Christmas break, Avalanche is last — but still a turnaround story  

Tyson Barrie isn’t pictured, but he’s in the Avalanche picture 

On this (unnamed) line, Gabe Landeskog amps up the scoring

Avalanche rushing game involves Girard and Jost

And the Nathan MacKinnon answer is… 

Noted hockey pundit Yogi Berra would call this deja vu all over again

MacKinnon and O’Reilly meet again

Catching up with Jared Bednar

Gabe Landeskog has to be smarter, and he’s the first to say so

For Avalanche, winning back fans isn’t easy, either

Horseman/defenseman Erik Johnson up to playing marathon minutes

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part One: Coal Miner’s son

Ring of Famer Red Miller, Part Two: About those %$#@ Raiders… 

This time a year ago, the wheels fell off 

Post-trade: On Girard and Kamenev

Matt Duchene heads to Ottawa

Stockholm is a Homecoming for Landeskog

Why Can’t MacKinnon do that every night?

And this Avalanche team is?

At the Pepsi Center, you’ll think you’re in Chicago

Is Zadorov ready to be – and stay – a top-pairing “D”?

For this is to work, Bernier has to be better

This isn’t just Jared Bednar’s second season. It’s his second chance.

Sven (The Reindeer) Andrighetto speedily skating into Avalanche forefront

With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a “core” issue

Magazine: Colorado Eagles’ class act in Northern Colorado

Magazine: Avalanche convinced a turnaround is possible

SHARE