The Colorado Avalanche has become one of the NHL’s most skilled teams from top to bottom; however, the high-powered hockey engine performs best when the individual parts function in unison.
For a majority of Colorado Avalanche fans, it is easy to list a favorite player and the reason behind their choice. Whether its Nathan MacKinnon and his high-speed precision, Gabriel Landeskog and his unselfish leadership, Cale Makar and his rookie phenom skill set, Nazem Kadri and his tough and dominant play, you can throw a dart at a dartboard and land on a player with an incredible skill set.
This embarrassment of riches that Joe Sakic and Jared Bednar have curated for the 2019-2020 season has garnered high praise from everyone in the hockey world making them prohibitive Western conference favorites. Barrelling their way into the COVID-19 induced playoff bubble, the Avalanche look to prove that they are a force to be reckoned with for many more years to come.
So after the initial Round-Robin series the Colorado Avalanche earned a respectable 2nd place seeding for the first round of this year’s playoffs, securing a series with the Arizona Coyotes. The Avalanche decided to use this matchup with the criminally outmatched Coyotes as their public display of top to bottom, team domination.
Rattling off back-to-back 7-1 victories over the Coyotes to close out the series and ensuring everyone wearing the Avalanche “A” on the ice saw their name on the stat sheet in some capacity, the Avs looked invincible. For a team that prided itself on its “team first” mentality all year long, carrying a “next man up” philosophy when injuries arose, and carrying a stable of upper-echelon talent into the second round of the playoffs the Avalanche were confident in themselves.
The sport of hockey has often been regarded as one of the most team-oriented sports in all of the world. If this was an individual superstar driven league, teams like Edmonton with Connor McDavid would be repeating as Stanley Cup champions year in and year out. The hockey history books are littered with the names of incredible players who never brought home the Cup because of their place on less-than-stellar teams. One name that comes to mind is Dale Hawerchuk who we just recently lost at the age of 57.
You can look back at previous Stanley Cup winners and see that those championship-caliber teams didn’t necessarily win on talent alone. The team could gel and form a cohesive unit that overpowered even the most dominant individual players. Its a mindset, a collective conscious the team adopts in which all questions are answered with a “we did” instead of “I did”. This team-centered way of playing is the secret ingredient “X” that teams find, often during playoff environments that become their linchpin to infamy.
So with the Colorado Avalanche entering the playoff bubble, the team would be essentially isolated from the rest of society and living together around the Rodgers Place arena in Edmonton. Leaving family, friends, loved ones, pets, and other hobbies behind provided an ample environment for the team to bond together with the day-to-day routine consisting of eat, sleep, and hockey.
You could easily see the seeds of team bonding being planted through the social media posts about the off days in the bubble as they were all together playing golf, football, soccer, and cornhole. The Avalanche showed all the positive signs of cohesion and dominance through the first-round matchup with the Coyotes and all the activities off the ice, because the team was comfortable and having fun and dictating the mood at that point.
The Colorado Avalanche began round 2 of their playoff quest on Saturday night on a nationally televised broadcast, surrounded by media buzz and self garnered momentum. Their matchup was against the Dallas Stars, who in the regular season owned the season series holding the Avalanche to a 0-2-2 record.
The Stars also were riding a wave of momentum heading into their playoff series with the Avs, after scoring 7 unanswered goals on the Calgary Flames to advance to the second round. The Stars decided the best way to beat the Avs was by taking the same emotions that got Colorado to this point and flip them on their side and make the Avalanche play an uncomfortable brand of hockey.
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The Colorado Avalanche were handed their customary hotel wake up call via the Dallas Stars in the first period with Tyler Seguin scoring 4 minutes after puck drop. The “Nate Dogg” Nathan MacKinnon answered with a goal of his own 1:04 later to even the score, but it was becoming apparent that Dallas planned for Colorado in ways that Arizona did not. Dallas would repeatedly send at least one player deep on the backcheck in the Avalanche defensive zone, where the Avs primarily set up their offensive zone transition, forcing Colorado to make decisions they weren’t used to.
If the Avalanche would manage to get a play developed on the back end, they were greeted by the Stars clogging up the neutral zone and blue line, eliminating any breakaway chances or any chance for the Avalanche to use their speed to their favor. The Avalanche found themselves forcing sloppy, ill-advised passes to gain some sort of offensive momentum that the Stars would easily take back to Phillip Grubauer. With the Avalanche playing out of rhythm, the defense found themselves chasing and relatively out of position most of the night leaving Grubauer to fend for himself until his body gave up on him.
After the Colorado Avalanche goaltender was helped off the ice in the 2nd period, it became apparent that they were in trouble. The Avalanche were taken out their game plan and it became the team functioning as a group of skilled individuals and not vice versa. Since the foundation of the league over 100 years ago, the game has been played with one single puck, and when you lose faith in your teammates to bail you out of a deficit the puck passing evaporates and you take it upon yourself to win the game.
The top line for the Avalanche believed that they had a chance to even up the game but after the injury to Grubauer, most of the team depth vanished in the onslaught delivered by the Stars. For the first time since the Avalanche arrived in the bubble, they were being outplayed, outsmarted, and out of their comfort zone. It’s easy to give the appearance of comradery and cohesion when things are going your way, but how the Avalanche handles adversity in this series will be critical for their advancement into the Conference finals.
This is where Bednar, Landeskog, and MacKinnon will earn their stripes as leaders if they can navigate a team handing them adversity night in and night out and reestablish the team-first mentality with no matter what a team throws at them. Game 1 was a very humbling and telling story for this year’s Avalanche team and how they rebound in Game 2 will speak volumes to the direction of the leaders in the sweaters on ice. The Stars may have taken your goalie, your speed, and the comfort out of the series but they haven’t taken the series itself yet and it’s up to them to determine how they can get to the team we all believe they can be.