Fun makes a welcome return to the ice at Pepsi Center

Early in the second period of the Colorado Avalanche’s home opener, the puck jumped through neutral ice. Two burgundy streaks, Nathan MacKinnon and Nail Yakupov, broke through the Boston Bruins zone on an odd-man rush. MacKinnon made the perfect crossing pass to Yakupov. He buried the Avs’ go-ahead goal and celebrated with a scream of pure joy.

Let that sink in. There was real joy in Yakupov’s reaction to the goal. A feeling reverberated through the Avalanche crowd that hadn’t been there in a couple of years. It was a comforting reminder to a suffering fan base.

The Colorado Avalanche are fun.

Among the crowd, it was a reminder that I needed. As the season begins, and for the first time since the Avalanche moved to Denver, I don’t have the schedule memorized. Coming into the home opener, I was still trying to distinguish Sven Andrighetto’s number from Alexander Kerfoot’s.

My attitude about the Avalanche was so broken last year. I wasn’t sure it was worth repairing. It just took a slight nudge to remind me why I love the Avs.

When it’s working, when a team is moving the puck and scoring, there is no better sport than hockey. Every play break is a 10-second Snapchat story. The games flow on momentum, feel and physics on the ice. Hockey is thrilling chaos.

The Avalanche were not fun last year.

Don’t take the first four games of a season too seriously. The Avalanche won half of their first 18 games last year. Then, with the injury to defenseman Erik Johnson, the wheels came off. The Avalanche managed one win every six games the rest of the year, a .167 winning percentage.

Their best players were hurt, frustrated and fighting. They couldn’t hold leads. They couldn’t control the puck. The game was never pretty to watch. It was miserable.

In the early stages of this season, the bad memories of last season have seemed to serve as motivation. This team needs to be different. To me, fun is the first step. If nothing else, let the team be fun.

There are a few factors that lend to the idea that this team can be enjoyable.

The Avalanche have invested heavily in is the atmosphere at Pepsi Center. Ever since the sellout steak ended in 2006, Pepsi Center has often felt more like a barn than a world-class entertainment venue during hockey games. The presentation was often shaky and disinteresting.

The Avs’ investment in the in-game experience includes new video board sound systems and on-ice projection. Most importantly, the creative minds they employ are making interesting decisions, from videos to contests. The dividends paid off on opening night, keeping the crowd engaged until the game became the focal point.

Pepsi Center was so loud during Avs goals, with an announced sellout crowd, that I couldn’t even hear the new goal song. But it’s perfect that they stole the song from a rowdy darts crowd. It makes absolutely no sense, other than that it’s fun.

Building on this atmosphere, second-year coach Jared Bednar enters the picture. Bednar was less than two months into his NHL head-coaching tenure on opening night last year. He won the AHL minor league championship in Cleveland, but was trying to do something completely different. He had to turn over a system built by hockey icon Patrick Roy (who quit on the team).

Bednar hoped to rebuild the foundation on the fly. He didn’t know that Roy’s departure would have the effect of taking the bottom pieces out of a Jenga tower – utter collapse.

In training camp last year, I was impressed by Bednar’s philosophy of moving the puck. The system emphasizes quickness through the neutral zone – never sideways and always forward. It seemed like the perfect way to highlight Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. It never materialized last year, but now seems to be paying off.

The defensive play early in the season has also been better at even strength. The Avalanche are more aggressive and creative in the way they steal the puck and block shots. This freer method makes Chris Bigras and Tyson Barrie huge assets.

The defense still needs work. The power play and penalty kill are bad. However, the good parts of the team are a start.

Of course, Bednar can only work with the players that he has and those guys were very divided last year. A lot of the personnel issues still rest with Joe Sakic. Sakic flipped over a roster of older guys and restocked it with younger talent and players with something to prove.

Nail Yakupov, a former first-overall pick is widely talked about as a complete bust and almost left the NHL entirely. The Montreal Canadiens basically gave Sven Andrighetto to the Avalanche last year. Alexander Kerfoot, a Harvard man, was signed by Colorado as a college free agent. This isn’t a complete list of all of the Avalanche players written off by the NHL at large.

This band of misfits is already bonding to make sure this is not a repeat of last year. Quotes from Erik Johnson to new Mile High Sports colleague Terry Frei spoke volumes about where this team is right now. I highly recommend the whole article: “With Avalanche off to another 3-1 start, leadership is a ‘core’ issue”

Johnson said it in the nicest way, but clearly, he feels that older veterans were holding the locker room back last year. Instead of the Avs core leading, it was the veterans. These were guys who played in a different era where experience trumped talent.

That is not the case anymore. Johnson believes that the core players need to lead the young Avalanche, even if they’re all in their 20s. Captain Gabe Landeskog is thriving with this idea. His physical, confrontational style is making the Avs tougher on the ice. He stands his ground and the Avalanche don’t back down.

The benefit of this style of play is that it’s a lot more enjoyable to watch and probably to play.

Who knows if it’s sustainable? The Avalanche may turn in another nightmare season. My expectations are low. When you start with one of the worst teams in NHL history, you can’t ask for much the following year.

So how about a little fun?

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