Colorado Avalanche fans were told what they didn't want to hear Monday morning: Matt Duchene, the team's leading scorer, first-line center and only Canadian Olympian, would miss about a month with a left knee injury.
With the playoffs about 17 days away and a likely first-round date with the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks all but engraved in silver, the timing couldn't have been much worse for a team that had so much good fortune to this point in the season. "It was fun while it lasted" was a sentiment heard in more than one corner of Denver, after the Duchene news broke.
Hold your hearses, everyone. Without a doubt, the loss of the young, speedy and skilled Duchene is not a good thing for the Avs. But in a seven-game series, the Avs have enough talent still around to possibly knock off a Hawks squad that (a) has some injuries of their own to deal with, (b) is struggling mightily right now and (c) went 0-4-1 against Colorado in the regular season.
And there is some historical precedent that the Avalanche can pull off a playoff series win or two without a top center. In 2001, the Avs received the stunning news that superstar Peter Forsberg would miss the rest of the postseason after suffering a ruptured spleen following the Western Conference semifinals against Los Angeles.
No way the Avs could win a Stanley Cup without Forsberg, most thought (hand raised). But the Avs went on to beat St. Louis in five games to advance to the finals, then beat the defending champion New Jersey Devils in seven. Of course, that Avs team had Patrick Roy in goal, along with Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Ray Bourque, Adam Foote, Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay, but we digress.
While this Avs squad can't match the '01 team in talent, which makes the loss of Duchene a proportionally bigger blow probably, this edition has a pretty talented kid in Nathan MacKinnon. The likely Calder Trophy winner this season, MacKinnon is expected to replace Duchene on a line with left wing Ryan O'Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
|Matt Duchene, C||71||23||47||70||8|
|Gabriel Landeskog, LW||73||24||37||61||21|
|Ryan O'Reilly, C||72||26||32||58||-3|
|Nathan MacKinnon, C||74||23||33||56||20|
|Paul Stastny, C||63||21||31||52||10|
MacKinnon might become the best player in the NHL in a few years. He's that good. He is certainly capable of adequately filling Duchene's skates in a short-term situation. The Avs likely will get right wing P.A. Parenteau—their leading goal scorer a year ago—back for the playoffs. Parenteau can replace MacKinnon at right wing on a line with Paul Stastny and Gabe Landeskog, and MacKinnon can replace Duchene with O'Reilly and McGinn.
Can the Avalanche beat likely playoff opponent Chicago, even without Matt Duchene?
So it might still be OK for Colorado. Of course, Duchene or no Duchene, the Avs' best hope for beating Chicago has always centered on goalie Semyon Varlamov, who went 4-0 with a .960 saves percentage against the Blackhawks this year.
If Varlamov doesn't play well, it wouldn't have mattered had they had Duchene or not. Colorado's weakness is on defense, but Varlamov has covered a lot of that up with his fine play. Who knows, the loss of Duchene might actually be a good thing in one sense for the Avs, too: It might force them to play more responsibly as a five-man unit defensively than they have of late. In the long run, it's never good to lose a star player and it always catches up to you.
But in a seven-game series against a team with some issues of their own? Yeah, Colorado still has a chance without Duchene.
Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter: @Adater.