Four times they had the lead. Four times they lost it.
In the end, the Colorado Avalanche just didn’t have the experience to close out the game and the series.
It wasn’t for lack of effort. The Avalanche, fueled by their "Why Not Us" motto, were vigilant in establishing the advantage time after time during a wild Game 7 at the Pepsi Center in Denver on Wednesday night.
Nick Holden started the scoring on a power play in the first period.
Jamie McGinn made it 2-1 later in the frame.
Paul Stastny’s goal early in the third bumped it to 3-2, and when that lead failed to hold up, Erik Johnson’s wrist shot at 11:16 of the final frame gave them yet another opportunity to seal a victory and continue the amazing run they’ve had all season as an unexpected Stanley Cup contender.
It didn’t happen. A will to win only goes so far. Home-ice advantage means only so much. The things you need to do to lock down a victory in today’s NHL include strong team defense and clutch goaltending. The Avalanche only had one of those elements all season. Wednesday night in a gut-wrenching 5-4 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild, they got neither.
Leaving goaltender Semyon Varlamov hanging time after time, the Avalanche needed the Vezina Trophy finalist and potential Hart Trophy nominee to play his best game of the playoffs—likely of the entire season.
Instead, he played his worst.
|Game 1||33||29||.879||W 5-4 (OT)|
|Game 2||32||30||.938||W 4-2|
|Game 3||46||45||.978||L 1-0 (OT)|
|Game 4||32||30||.938||L 2-1|
|Game 5||32||29||.906||W 4-3 (OT)|
|Game 6||21||18||.857||L 5-2|
|Game 7||35||30||.857||L 5-4 (OT)|
That’s not to blame the loss of the game or the series on Varlamov. He’s been the team’s most valuable player all year. The Russian has had to deal with a porous defense all season long.
In the team’s most critical game of the campaign, it was certainly consistent in that regard.
Their most veteran rearguards, Jan Hejda and Johnson, were running around and looking lost after nearly colliding behind the net when Wild captain Mikko Koivu tied things up in the first period.
Yet to play a full NHL season, Holden turned his back to block a shot and the resulting carom off his pants wound up on veteran Wild sniper Dany Heatley’s stick for the next tying marker, with fellow defenseman Andre Benoit unable to tie up anyone in front of the net.
Ryan Wilson didn’t close the gap on Nino Niederreiter’s first goal of the night, and Varlamov overplayed the left side of his net to leave the top corner exposed over his blocker. Niederreiter took full advantage of both players.
The final goal of regulation was a nearly identical shot from Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who tucked the puck into the same corner off the crossbar when Niederreiter overpowered Hejda behind the net and Spurgeon patiently waited for rookie phenom Nathan MacKinnon to commit to a block and slide himself out of the play.
The overtime winner came on a two-on-one rush created when Matt Duchene failed to recognize the developing play, leaving Benoit alone with Johnson caught deep and no one to cover for him.
Varlamov’s glove hand failed him on that one.
So Varly hasn't exactly been, how you say, in Game 7 tonight.— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 1, 2014
The goalie came up short. The kids came up short.
The line of Gabriel Landeskog, MacKinnon and Stastny came up with one goal and a minus-seven rating in the biggest game of their careers so far.
Meanwhile, the Niederreiter line—bolstered by veterans Heatley and Kyle Brodziak—came through with a massive evening. Heatley had a goal and two assists, Brodziak had three helpers, and the Swiss sniper had a pair of goals and an assist to give the trio nine points and a plus-eight rating with seven shots.
While Niederreiter is only 21 years old himself, coach Mike Yeo should be credited for lining him up with a couple of journeymen to keep him calm and confident at crunch time.
The Avalanche didn’t have the same sort of mentorship.
As a result, the Wild move on the face the Chicago Blackhawks in a second-round series.
“Relief,” Wild vet Zach Parise told the NHL Network after the game. “We haven’t had a lot of luck in this building in this series. We lost a couple of overtime games we felt like we should have won. But we felt good going into the overtime tonight and we were able to pull it off.
“We finally put some in on Varlamov.”
The Avalanche, meanwhile, reflect on a season that was stunning yet incredibly disappointing.
"All of the hopes you had come crashing down in a matter of milliseconds. Definitely a very empty feeling." - Avs Nate MacKinnon— Rob Tychkowski (@Sun_Tychkowski) May 1, 2014
“It’s an emptiness. You don’t even know how to handle it. All of a sudden, it all just ends. I don’t know how to describe it,” Landeskog told reporters, via the Avalanche website. “It’s one of those games where we feel like it’s ours, it should have been ours. We worked so hard to get that lead over and over again.”
The hardest part is keeping it. To do that, you have to know what it takes. Perhaps the Avs know it now. Maybe next season, they’ll apply the knowledge. Another year older. Another year wiser.
"There's a side of me that's disappointed -- I thought we could have won that game," Coach #Roy— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) May 1, 2014
"But I don't have enough words to describe how proud I am of this team," Coach #Roy— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) May 1, 2014
"One quality we had all year is we were never satisfied, and we're certainly not going to start tonight," Coach #Roy— Colorado Avalanche (@Avalanche) May 1, 2014
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.