Where did the good times go? A scant 305 days after parading the Stanley Cup through the streets of Denver, the Avalanche dynasty crumbled.
With a 2-1 home loss on a sad Sunday night to an upstart Seattle team that had no business beating the defending NHL champs, the Avs are going home early from the playoffs, carrying with them hard questions.
Is this Colorado team, despite the star power of Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen, a one-hit wonder? Can Valeri Nichuskin, who mysteriously disappeared from this first-round series, be trusted as a key member of this squad? And if injured captain Gabe Landeskog, whose troubling knee injury cost him the entire season, can’t return to full health, might the roster need a major renovation instead of minor retooling?
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
In the moments before the puck dropped in Game 7, a camera panned to an impossibly handsome man waving a sign that demanded “PLAYOFF NOISE” from the Ball Arena crowd. When the jumbotron revealed that movie-star mug belonged to none other than Landeskog in street clothes, the joint was jumping with good karma.
Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose, eh?
During the opening 20 minutes, I swear the ice tilted so hard in favor of the Avalanche, the Sea Monsters were in grave danger of falling off and going under. The shots after one period were 16-6 in favor of Colorado. MacKinnon was everywhere, dancing with the puck on his stick, firing lasers at the net, messing with the minds of Seattle players. But our old pal and Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer got in the way of the party, saving his teammates from getting blown out before the first intermission.
You can probably guess what happened next. The hockey gods show no mercy for wasted opportunities; they punished the Avs for their squandering ways.
In the second period, the Kraken came to life. We can’t make this stuff up: For the seventh time in seven games, Seattle tallied the first goal, when Oliver Bjorkstrand won a puck battle in the corner, allowing fourth-line mucker Brandon Tanev to get a greasy score in the kitchen of Avs goaltender Alexandar Georgiev. The air went out of the building, then the roof nearly caved in, when Bjorkstrand scored on a breakaway a little more than seven minutes deep into the period to stake the feisty visitors to a 2-0 lead.
Was all the adversity, from the injury to Landeskog to the loss of Nichuskin, that coach Jared Bednar had quietly cursed, finally too much for the Avs?
But we know this: MacKinnon does not believe in surrender. On the power play, he fired a shot Grubauer never saw until it was in the back of the net, in no small part because the puck deflected off the moose-sized backside of teammate Mikko Rantanen, allowing the Avs to cut their deficit in half only 28 seconds before the end of Period 2.
Perhaps the hockey gods have a heart, after all?
Well, maybe not so much. After being teed up by defenseman Devon Toews early in the third period, MacKinnon ripped a long drive as awe-inspiring as any swing by Happy Gilmore in his prime. The blast left Grubauer helpless and the crowd went crazy, celebrating what everyone except Kraken coach Dave Hakstol and his staff was a tie score.
Hakstol had detected Artturi Lehkonen entering the zone offside an agonizing 17 seconds before MacKinnon’s shot and a video challenge erased the goal.
Alas … Colorado never got another shot past Grubauer.
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Long live the champs. The champs are dead.
As it turns out, the image of Landeskog as a cheerleader will haunt a season that ended for the Avs far sooner than anybody expected.
The front-office braintrust of Joe Sakic and Chris MacFarland made a mistake when they decided to basically run it all back, never finding a suitable replacement for Nazem Kadri after he departed in free agency.
If Captain Landy can’t regain full health and wayward son Nichuskin can’t be trusted, this Colorado roster might need an extreme makeover before it returns to serious Stanley Cup contention.
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