"Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games. Quite frankly, I don't care about your Vegas trip right now... It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed to be here right now. It's not even funny."
-Jean-Sebastien Giguere after loss to Calgary Flames on April 9, 2013.
I had to double-check the date upon finding that quote. April 9, 2013, was not long ago, even though it feels like ages (eons, even) in the past. At that time the Avalanche hit the basement of the NHL with such a deafening THUD it nearly drowned out the relentless sighs and boos at Pepsi Center. The “It’s All About Commitment” slogan in the Avs locker room had likely peeled off of the walls and was swept away with the lifelessness and discontent of a fractured locker room.
Even head coach Patrick Roy, who I believe arrived in Denver on a gold-plated carriage pulled by the finest Arabian horses, realized plenty of work was to be done. “We may not win the Stanley Cup,” said Roy in his introductory press conference. “But we will have a Stanley Cup mentality.”
Remember that bottom-feeding team? Well they just won the Central Division over the defending Cup champion Blackhawks and the trendy St. Louis Blues. That guy they picked over Seth Jones is a front-runner for the Calder Trophy, that all-skill-no-substance goaltender is a candidate for the Vezina, and that bust of a defenseman they traded the house for in 2011 may be the league’s most improved player.
This season has left me in disbelief. I, like many, was expecting a turnaround, but the Avs blew away the expectations of even the most optimistic fans. So for the droves flocking to the Avs bandwagon, a) WELCOME BACK! And b) you’ve missed a lot, because this year has been incredible. Cliff notes of my thoughts are listed below, in sequential order.
- June 30. Nathan MacKinnon donning an Avs jersey next to Sakic and Roy is beautiful. Nothing makes you feel old and worthless like seeing a 17-year-old draftee shaking hands with your idols.
- August 28. Well that’s settled. Miley Cyrus has gone insane.
- October 3. Wow, that video screen is the real deal. And they have ice girls! Coincidence? Doubtful.
- October 30. Semyon Varlamov has the coolest mug shot since Frank Sinatra.
- November 2. Adam Foote’s number sure looks good up in the rafters. And that MacKinnon kid is the real deal.
- November 10. Are the Avs really 14-2??
- November 29. Duchene better get named to Team Canada.
- December 11. Oh look, Miley is coming to Denver in March…
- December 22. Max Talbot is starting to look like a good addition. Plus his Fu Manchu is unrivaled.
- January 8. Tyson Barrie is clutch.
- January 14. Tyson Barrie is CLUTCH.
- February 2. (Day erased from memory)
- February 9. Wow, the Avs are third in the division. That would be cool if they caught the Blackhawks. But the Avs haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, and the Hawks have won, well, two Cups since then. Don’t get your hopes up.
- March 3. Hmm should I go to the Miley Cyrus concert tonight? Tickets are cheap, and it’s not every day you get to witness a train wreck in person.
- March 4. Avalanche beat Chicago and move into 2nd! Man am I glad I went to the game instead of the Miley show last night. I bet she did unforgivable things to that video screen. I can still hear the screams.
- March 19. That would be something else if they caught the Blues, but that would require a complete meltdown on their end. Something along the lines of losing six straight and getting outscored 22-5 in the process.
- March 29. Playoffs! Var-ly! Var-ly!
- April 11. They caught up to the Blues?!?!
- April 13. THEY WON THE DIVISION? Time to write an article.
Clearly, the cliff notes don’t do the season justice, but a full description would take days.
Long story short: The Avalanche, one year removed from finishing last in the Western Conference, not only won the division but garnered the third-most points in the entire NHL. At the start of the year, the Avalanche were 50 to 1 long shots to win the Stanley Cup. Today, they’re 10 to 1. Are there are still hockey experts out there who believe Patrick Roy isn’t a lock for the Jack Adams?
In addition, this isn’t a fluke occurrence. The Avs have a glistening future ahead of them, but let’s be honest—the Avalanche grossly overachieved this season.
Don’t let the brilliance of Semyon Varlamov fool you because the Avs’ back end consists of about three AHL defensemen. Its special teams, particularly on the penalty kill, is subpar. However, its shortcomings have been overcome through a combination of will and determination. This Avalanche team has finally gained something that eluded them for years.
Joe Sacco’s Avalanche would have crumbled under the first signs of adversity (and Sacco would have reminded us in the postgame show, as he was one to do). This year’s team is nothing of the sort.
Think of Gabe Landeskog walking around Alex Ovechkin to seal the game on November 10. Remember when the Avs pulled their goalie with five minutes left in New Jersey on February 3, only to tie the game and win it in overtime? Or when the Avs shut out both Boston and Pittsburgh in October as part of an early season road trip? Confidence has no limits, and its effectiveness can lead to another asset.
Fire is Patrick Roy trying to crush Bruce Boudreau with a glass partition on opening night. Fire is watching your best player go down with a scary-looking knee injury against San Jose, only to rally among your teammates and clinch a playoff spot. Fire is standing up to the St. Louis Blues on April 5 by beating up and embarrassing a team that had rag-dolled you all season, followed shortly by stealing their divisional crown. Fire can lead to another thing.
When a first-ballot Hall of Famer gives you a guest pregame speech, you listen. When Ray Bourque spoke to the Avs before their contest with the powerhouse Bruins in October, the legendary defenseman offered up a simple but matter of fact question: Why not us?
The three words have transformed into the team’s slogan throughout its remarkable campaign and resulted in different heroes on different nights. The Avalanche finished the season with five players amassing more than 20 goals and 60 points. Several fringe NHLers who could hardly find a job are now a part of one of the NHL’s elite teams. But they wouldn’t have reached this point without…
Attention to detail.
Whatever Patrick Roy and his staff did, it worked. Maybe it was slight tweaks in players’ games or it was simply providing the psychological boost needed to succeed. Whatever happened, it either resurrected or spurred the potentially remarkable careers of countless young players.
Some skaters, on the other hand, just take it upon themselves. Ryan O’Reilly, a notorious rink rat, is well-known to stay after practices and refine little parts of his game. His dedication allowed him to lead the team in goals, despite switching from center to wing.
The Avalanche surely deserve to celebrate such a tremendous turnaround, but the real heroes are remembered in the second season. Regardless of the outcome, the Stanley Cup Playoffs banner adorning the ice at Pepsi Center is a heartwarming, welcome sight for Avalanche fans.
NHL games played in late Spring and into early summer hold an aura that cannot be matched. On a personal note, I have sorely missed wearing my Avalanche jersey in May. Now that the Avalanche rebuilding phase is complete, I believe I’ll be able to live out my small victory for the next several of years.
But, for now, the Avs have the Minnesota Wild. Both teams enter the postseason on hot streaks, and the Wild have a healthy, experienced team backstopped by the Ilya Bryzgalov of old.
Looming in the second round lies either the internally combusting Blues or the hardened Blackhawks. If Colorado were to face Chicago, Gabe Landeskog and company hold a combined record of 8-1-1 of the two teams standing in front of their march to the Western Conference Finals.
Do I believe the inexperienced Avs can knock off the defending champs in Round 2? No. But I’ve been wrong many, many times this year, and each time has been better than the last.
I never know what to expect in the NHL playoffs. All I know is I can’t wait to see the Pepsi Center, my favorite place on earth, booming with playoff fever once again.
Thank you, Patrick Roy. And thank you, Colorado Avalanche. It’s great to have you back.