Avalanche’s Rocky Road to the Postseason

The Colorado Avalanche fought their way into the postseason through skill, grit, teamwork, resiliency and a little bit of luck. In other words, the Avalanche earned every inch of their playoff spot.

But it wasn’t easy. The road was not smooth. In fact, the Avalanche’s path to the postseason resembled more of a wild roller coaster ride than an inevitable culmination of all their work and effort.

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The Colorado Avalanche are learning how to handle playoff level hockey by combing skill and passion. (Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports)

Skill can help players excel. Passion drives the engine. Combine skill and passion with the magic of team chemistry and anything is possible. The combustible combination, however, can offer more thrills and chills than a Stephen King horror novel.

The Avalanche whirlwind ride to the playoffs would put a fiction novel to shame. Too much drama. Too many last-minute problems. An average reader would find the story unbelievable. Yet, the road to the NHL postseason is rife with improbable storylines. Colorado’s story happens to have lots of heart-stopping twists riddled with multiple prospects of impending doom looming on the horizon.

Rising Out of a Disastrous Winter

After a hot start to the season, where the Avalanche combined for a 15-6-2 record over the months of October and November, they hit a wall in December. The Avalanche’s struggles carried over into January, with the team going a dismal 7-14-3 over the two months. To makes things even worse, in January they won only three games and earned a meager six points in their 10 games played. At one point, the team went for 33 games without winning two consecutive matchups.

Mid-February the Avalanche were on an eight-game losing streak. Defenseman Ian Cole ended up on injured reserve after getting into a fight with Tom Wilson which led to an orbital bone fracture. Forward Colin Wilson also suffered an upper-body injury that forced him onto injured reserve as well. Both goaltenders had struggled with below average performances for the past two months, having save percentages in the .800’s. The Avalanche were sliding down the NHL rankings.

But Colorado found a way to battle back, going on a 6-1-1 streak to finish off February on a hot streak. Wilson returned two weeks after his injury. Cole reappeared three weeks after surgery, wearing a cage.

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Injured defenseman Ian Cole returned just in time to help the Avalanche with a playoff push. (AP Photo/Joe Mahoney)

The front office picked up forward Derick Brassard before the trade deadline to help the team make a playoff push. But along the way, the team lost Matt Nieto for what appeared to be the remainder of the season. The Avalanche sat in a tenuous position, improving but limping.

March rolled in like a tidal wave of disappointment. Team captain Gabriel Landeskog was injured four games into the month and was given a four-to-six-week recovery window. The Avalanche went 2-5-0 through the 15th of the month. Heading into the St. Patrick’s Day game, the team sat six points below the second wild card spot with three teams above them. The Avalanche looked like they were going over the precipice, without hope of return.

Avalanche’s Amazing Comeback

Something funny happened, though. After the embarrassing home loss to the Anaheim Ducks, the Avalanche started winning. Coach Jared Bednar rolled out a lineup with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. Goaltender Philip Grubauer heated up in net. Colorado won four straight games.

Even more surprising, the Avalanche won those games off the back of secondary scoring and impressive goaltending. The defensemen were involved in three quarters of the goals scored. Superstar Nathan MacKinnon didn’t earn a single point in three straight games. It was an unlikely turn of events.

As the Avalanche started gaining momentum, they got hit by another blow. Star forward Mikko Rantanen was injured in their win against the Dallas Stars, the same team that had knocked out Landeskog two weeks earlier.

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Mikko Rantanen suffered an undisclosed injury against the Dallas Stars. (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

MacKinnon was the only remaining player from their top line. How could an Avalanche team battling through injuries, losing two of its three top forwards, hope to compete down the stretch?

Every team they were facing was either well on their way to the postseason or battling to get there. How could the Avalanche continue to climb out of the hole they had dug?

Colorado responded to the challenge by playing hard and winning. Winning without Landeskog. Winning without Rantanen. Winning despite an ugly winter and all the pitfalls since.

Colorado went on a league-leading 8-0-2 streak, getting at least a point in every game and earning 18 out of a possible 20 points.

Five games into their dominating streak, the Avalanche finally had luck go their way. Maybe the team’s trainers knew some secret healing cures or pulled a rabbit out of their hat. Somehow, they worked out a couple of significant miracles.

Nieto, not expected to return until well into the playoffs, suited up for the contest against the Vegas Golden Knights and played over 15 minutes. Landeskog returned for the following game against the Arizona Coyotes, a matchup with huge playoff implications.

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Gabriel Landeskog made a remarkable recovery to rejoin the Avalanche down the crucial final stretch. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The captain managed an assist on the first goal of the game, helping the team get on the scoreboard in a game that led to a dramatic shootout win. The win put the Avalanche three points up over the Coyotes for the final wild card spot.

Both players returned to the ice anywhere from one to three weeks ahead of schedule. Their recoveries were remarkable.

In the three games after Landeskog’s return, the Avalanche came back from two goal deficits in each matchup. They lost in a shootout to the St. Louis Blues, soundly defeated the Edmonton Oilers with a four goal second period and defeated the Winnipeg Jets in overtime to seal their place in the postseason.

That description seriously undersells the intensity of the contests.

Fighting for the Final Wild Card Spot

Against the Blues, the Avalanche didn’t register a shot on goal until 15 minutes into the first period. The team didn’t score until they were in the third period and down two goals. Landeskog finally deflected the puck into the net six minutes into the third period to put the Avalanche on the scoreboard. Then, with 47 seconds left in the third period, Alexander Kerfoot tipped in a beauty of a pass to even the contest and send it into overtime.

The Avalanche pulled off their second stunner by successfully making it through the overtime to get to a shootout and earn a crucial point. No mean feat for the team with the most overtime losses in the NHL. Former Avalanche Ryan O’Reilly was the only player to score in the shootout and the Avalanche escaped with a crucial point, eliminating the Oilers for the playoff hunt, and sprinting home to host those same Oilers for the second night of the back-to-back.

The next night, the Oilers came out with something to prove and dominated the first period of play. They, too, went up two goals in a frame that saw 10 minutes tick by before the Avalanche got a shot on goal. Colorado eventually woke up and started pushing back, finishing the first period without a goal. It was not the start the team was hoping for.

However, unlike the previous night, the Avalanche came roaring back in the second period, gaining momentum from a power play goal and finishing the second with four unanswered tallies over the course of seven minutes of play. Even Wilson got in on the action, as he spun away from Connor McDavid to notch the fourth goal.

Avalanche forward Colin Wilson
Colin Wilson played an impressive game, out maneuvering Connor McDavid to notch a second period goal. (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

The Avalanche went on to score two additional goals in the third, notching a total of six unanswered goals against the Oilers. Without Grubuaer, who actually got the night off, Semyon Varlamov came up big in net, stopping 21 of 23 shots for a .931 save percentage (SV%). It was his best showing in awhile.

But the night wasn’t over for the Avalanche. The feisty Arizona Coyotes, who had trailed Colorado by only two points going into the night, were taking on the 30th ranked Los Angeles Kings. The run for the playoffs can make for some unusual rooting interests on a nightly basis. The Avalanche needed the Kings to beat the Coyotes in regulation to get some breathing room for the last wild card spot.

Fans started checking their phones for updates even as the Avalanche were building their lead over the Oilers. Tense whispers filled the air at breaks in the action as people updated their neighbors and discussed the improbability of the Kings actually eking out a win. After the Colorado victory, the speculation picked up in intensity, with people nervously checking for updates.

Something incredible happened. After two periods, the Kings sat in a 1-1 tie with the Coyotes. It was a late game that looked like it would come down to the wire.

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Kings goaltender Jack Campbell made save after save on the Arizona Coyotes. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Early in the third period, the Kings scored and clung onto the lead for nearly 16 minutes before finally scoring on the empty net to ice any chance of a Coyotes comeback. The Kings win also ensured the Avalanche’s first-round draft pick (from the Ottawa Senators) would be a guaranteed top four selection. It was a good night.

The Avalanche held a four-point lead with two games to go. They only needed one more point to secure a wild card slot. Unfortunately, the upcoming matchup was against the Central Division leading Jets.

Earning a Postseason Slot

The Jets had been struggling, so there was hope, but the matchup looked challenging, and tense, again. The Jets team that skated out the first period did not look like the crew who had gone 1-4-1 in their previous six contests. They came out flying and hitting and once again, the Avalanche ended up down two goals after the first period.

Tyson Barrie finally got on the Avalanche scoreboard five minutes into the second period. Colorado was now down by one goal. Hope was alive but the Avalanche seemed to have trouble getting the puck in the net, despite a number of quality shots. Finally, in the third period, Carl Soderberg made a slick redirect of a Tyson Jost shot to even up the score. The Colorado bench and the Can crowd erupted like someone had been shaking them, spewing cheers like a carbonated soda.

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The Avalanche versus the Jets became a contentious affair. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The problem? Nearly nine-and-a-half minutes remained and the Jets were still swarming. With only a minute and half left in the game, with the score tied and the Avalanche only needing to get to overtime to make the playoffs, Colorado ran out too many men on the ice, putting them in a precarious position down a man against a tough Jets team.

Forced to play on the penalty kill, the Avalanche quickly ended up penned in their own end, fighting to block, deflect or disrupt the flurry of shots coming from a Jets team hungry to keep their top division rank.

Fans cheered icing. Avalanche forward Matt Calvert blocked a shot by taking the puck in a very sensitive area in the waning moments, laying it all on the line to keep the tie.

Eventually, the horn sounded the end of the third. The roar filling the Can eclipsed the cheers of the tying goal, with the crowd as loud as any playoff win. The bench exploded. The Avalanche had gotten their one point. They were going to the postseason.

But there was still hockey to play. Overtime was calling.

Whether it was the adrenaline, the exuberance, the new line combinations, whatever, the Avalanche played the best minute and a half of overtime of their season. The celebratory atmosphere culminated in long suffering Colorado veteran defenseman Erik Johnson scoring the game-winning goal a minute-and-a-half into the extra frame.

Erik Johnson not only scored the game winning goal in OT but he’s heading to the Avs first back to back playoff matchup in his tenure with the team.

Pandemonium erupted at the Pepsi Center. Nikita Zadorov could have competed in a standing high jump as he leaped to hug Johnson. The mob of blue jerseys swarmed the ice – leaping, hugging, cheering – while everyone in the Pepsi Center was doing the same. Tears, cheers, unbelief mixed with joy. It was a story book end to the regular season home games.

Resilient Avalanche Set New Tone

For a team that had started off as one of the hottest groups in the league, weathered a January where they only had three wins, lost two thirds of their flashy top line in March and played a month without one of their more tenacious wings, it was a magical finish to a roller coaster season.

Last season, the Avalanche backed into the playoffs after losing a number of games down the stretch and winning the final matchup of the regular season. This time, the Avalanche enter the playoffs knowing they earned their spot, overcoming adversity to not just survive, but adapt and thrive.

While the Avalanche are happy to be returning to the playoffs, no one is expecting it to be an easy ride.

The Avalanche are reclaiming their heritage as a quality hockey team who can make the postseason in any given year. For an organization that last had back-to-back playoff appearances back when the NHL had their lockout in 2004-05, it’s a big step. The future is bright for Colorado.

Now, though, it’s about making some hay in the postseason. The Avalanche will be facing off against the Pacific Division leading Calgary Flames. Colorado has their captain back, some great goaltending, and the third member of their top scoring line could be returning soon.

There’s every reason to believe this matchup will have just as many edge-of-your-seat moments as the run leading to he playoffs. It’s ok, though, the Avalanche have proven to be a resilient bunch this year. They can weather the storm and so can their fans.