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Colorado Avalanche's Magic Carpet Ride Crashes to Reality

The puck bounces out of the net after Colorado Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov, second from left, of Russia lets the winning goal slip past off the stick of Minnesota Wild right wing Nino Niederreiter (22) of Switzerland in the overtime period during Game 7 of an NHL hockey first-round playoff series on Wednesday, April 30, 2014, in Denver. Minnesota won 5-4 to win the series. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press
Adrian DaterNHL National ColumnistNovember 30, 2016

In the end, the pointy-headed stat nerds were right about the Colorado Avalanche. All those bad Corsi numbers, all those putrid Fenwick Close figures, they actually meant something. They meant, in the end, that the #WhyNotUs Avs just weren’t good enough to win a Stanley Cup this year.

It’s like that scene in Twilight Zone, The Movie, when instead of a cuddly rabbit, Uncle Walt pulls out a demonic hare with five-inch, man-eating teeth. Patrick Roy was able to pull the nice furry rabbit out of his hat all season long in his first year as the Avs coach, to the point where many wondered whether he really did have magical qualities to him.

Despite a defensively challenged roster, one that allowed an average of 32.7 shots per game (25th in the league) and finished 27th in Fenwick Close, the Avs somehow won the brutally tough Central Division. Those fancy Corsi and Fenwick darlings, Chicago and St. Louis, both finished behind the Avalanche when the final standings were complete.

Roy juggled his roster, playing rookie sensation Nathan MacKinnon at all three forward positions regularly and using defensemen as forwards at times. He even came up with innovations such as pulling his goalie much earlier than tradition held. In the first round of the playoffs, Roy had his team up three games to two on a Minnesota Wild team that was mostly healthy and had nearly $12 million more in payroll. This was despite him not having his leading scorer from the regular season (Matt Duchene), his best offensive defenseman (Tyson Barrie) and key third-line center (John Mitchell) for most or all of the series to that point.

So what happened? How did this seemingly charmed team lose the final two games, including a Game 7 at home in which it had four one-goal leads, the last one with under three minutes left in regulation? Where was the miracle finish in overtime, the kind that had already won two previous games at home in the series?

Even Roy, a pragmatic man who nonetheless has always believed miracles can occur, seemed a bit stunned his team’s run was over after Nino Niederreiter’s OT goal against Vezina Trophy finalist Semyon Varlamov.

JACK DEMPSEY/Associated Press

“The toughest part is not going to be coming back tomorrow, preparing for Chicago,” Roy said quietly. “I’m sure tomorrow’s going to hurt more.”

The Avs were a team that lived in a kind of denial all year long. That’s not a knock on them at all. They knew they had some issues, but as the wins kept piling up, they were able to thumb their noses at all the stat geeks who said they didn’t play with the puck enough, weren’t good enough defensively and would be exposed in the playoffs.

They lived on the precipice all year but kept steering the car at the last second, always keeping it from going off the cliff. They won a league-high 28 one-goal games, always getting the big saves from Varlamov or J.S. Giguere or the big goal from a rotating cast of heroes in the end. But in Game 7, Varlamov couldn’t come up with the big saves. He was beaten by Jared Spurgeon with 2:27 left in regulation, the second time in the third period he couldn’t protect a one-goal lead.

In overtime, Gabe Landeskog and Paul Stastny had a two-on-one break-in on emergency fill-in goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Everyone in the Pepsi Center waited for the puck to go in, the red light to come on and everybody in a burgundy red sweater to dance around and lift their sticks in salute to them.

Instead, Ryan Suter broke up the play, Dany Heatley forwarded a pass up ice and Niederreiter beat Varlamov high glove. Game over. Season over. #WhyNotUs now just #WhyUs.

DENVER, CO - APRIL 30:  P.A. Parenteau #15, Matt Duchene #9 and Ryan O'Reilly #90 of the Colorado Avalanche skate off the ice after loosing to the Minnesota Wild in overtime of Game Seven of the First Round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Pepsi Ce
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Ryan O’Reilly didn’t want to hear any platitudes about the Cinderella regular season afterward. With mist in his eyes, O’Reilly said, “Who cares?” when talking about all those wonderful regular-season accomplishments.

“The only thing that matters is a Stanley Cup, winning playoff games,” O’Reilly said. “We failed.”

Most everyone else will still keep the #WhyNotUs moniker in their heads when remembering the 2013-14 Avalanche, not #WeFailed.

But for now, the unfortunate reality of their season is now #BetterLuckNextYear.

 

Adrian Dater has covered the NHL since 1995 for The Denver Post. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.

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