Standing Pat

Pat Bowlen card 8.7.01_0005

The card reproduced above was postmarked Aug. 8, 2001, one day after my column on Pat Bowlen’s pursuit of a new stadium for the Broncos was published in the Rocky Mountain News:

“Dear Dave, Thanks for the nice article. I felt good reading something as nice as that this morning with my coffee. Let’s have another run. You will kick my ass! Pat”

The reference was to a run we shared in Greeley 17 years before, in Bowlen’s first summer as Broncos owner and my first as a Broncos beat writer for the Rocky, which I’d referenced in the column. The joke about feeling good when he read it referred back to a part of the interview in which he described his feelings reading the papers during the stadium campaign.

Here’s the column, published in the Rocky on Aug. 7, 2001:

Always Standing Pat

For Broncos owner Bowlen, running from critics or his beliefs hasn’t been his style

Eighteen summers ago, when Pat Bowlen was the 40-year-old rookie owner of the Denver Broncos, I was a rookie beat writer assigned to cover the team.

Competition between Denver’s daily newspapers on all matters Broncos-related was even fiercer than it is now, in part because there were only two big-league teams in town. Without baseball, our football season began about Memorial Day.

I knew two things about Bowlen: He was Canadian, and he’d just finished 135th out of more than 1,400 competitors in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon, a remarkable achievement for a man his age. I fancied myself in his league, having run a high-altitude marathon a couple of months earlier. I thought I might use this to my advantage in the ongoing beat war.

I invited the new owner to go for a run between practices in Greeley’s stifling midday heat, thinking we would form a bond and I would get an impeccable source of information.

Math was not my strong suit. I hadn’t bothered to figure his likely training pace. He ran me into the ground, to be blunt about it, and the conversation was kept to a minimum, owing chiefly to my struggle for oxygen.

Having watched any number of his players lose their breakfasts doing Dan Reeves’ suicide sprints, I remember thinking the Broncos might be the only team in sports with an owner in better shape than his players. I wondered if Bowlen’s athletic drive would make him a better owner than most of his brethren, whose idea of exercise remains martini curls in the owner’s box.

And I wondered if he meant it when he said he’d be Broncos owner until they carried him out in a pine box.

All these years later, I have my answers. Now 57, running the Broncos is Bowlen’s life. And as popular a target as he has been in the intervening period, it seems to me undeniable that he has grown into a model owner, maybe the best in sports.

***

In less than three weeks, the Broncos will play their first game in the new $400 million, taxpayer-financed stadium Bowlen worked for years to have built.

Everything about it has been controversial, from the enormous cost to the public financing to the corporate name that defrayed not merely taxpayer expense, but also Bowlen’s.

When you consider it from a Broncos fan’s point of view, there is nothing controversial about it, other than maybe the name. The new stadium provides the local franchise with a state-of-the-art venue and, perhaps more important, state-of-the-art revenue.

Whether such extravagance in the service of sport represents a reasonable public priority is a fair question. But Bowlen’s job is not to determine public priorities. Bowlen’s job is to represent the interests of his team. This he did most successfully.

“The process was remarkable when you look back at what happened and where we’re at now,” he told me. “We really started this thing back in the mid-’90s, and here we are a few weeks from playing a game there, and a month from opening up Monday night, in a facility that I believe is the best ever. I really do.

“Of course, everybody laughs, ‘Hey, there’s Bowlen boasting and bragging, self-serving statements,’ but I’ve been in all the stadiums and I think I can have a slightly objective view, and I think history will show it as being one of the better stadiums built, especially for football.”

His role as the point man in a campaign to win public financing made him a lightning rod for criticism.

“When we were going through this, when we were soliciting the taxpayers to continue that tenth of a percent (sales) tax that built Coors Field, I could get up every morning and pick up the paper and somewhere in there there’d be an article about me. None of them would be very good. Some of them would be a little better than others, but most of them would be pretty negative. You know: ‘Bowlen reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’

“I’d read that, drink my coffee and go out to the Broncos facility and forget about it. I think at some stage in my life it would have made me very upset. It’s not that you ignore it, it’s just you say, ‘Well, that’s their point of view. And here’s my point of view.’

“I know I never want to go through it again. I’ve never wanted to be a politician, and I sure as hell was a politician. I might as well have been running for governor during that period of time. So that’s the way you’ve got to approach it: Your opponent is going to say bad things about you. And you just go on and hope that your position prevails.

“It did, and as time goes by, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of critics of what we did. There will be people that say, ‘I still don’t support a tax-supported stadium.’ But now we’ve got it and it has been supported by the taxpayers. I think they’ll say, ‘This is a great new facility. I still don’t agree that we should have paid for it, but we got our money’s worth.'”

***

Bowlen admits his transition from private businessman to public figure was a rocky one. From the fur coat he brought from Edmonton to a tolerance for players of dubious character, he took plenty of shots.

But he never ran and hid from his critics, as many owners do. And his team has been consistently successful during a period in which he has been the lone constant. The Broncos have been to the Super Bowl five times in the 17 seasons Bowlen has owned them, winning the NFL championship twice.

John Elway and Mike Shanahan get most of the credit, as they should. But Bowlen’s relationship with both men is an underappreciated factor. He let Reeves go when it was either Reeves or Elway. In Bowlen’s office hangs a LeRoy Neiman rendering of Elway — a gift from the quarterback. It is a possession Bowlen prizes.

He hired Shanahan and got out of his way while remaining in daily contact as club president. While we were speaking, Bowlen took a call from Shanahan for a report on that morning’s training camp workout.

“I was very shy of public exposure, and shy, period,” Bowlen said. “So the exposure to Denver and the publicity was initially really a big shock. You can’t explain that to anybody when they’re coming in. But you learn fairly quickly that you’ve got a very short honeymoon period and that ownership is always a pretty easy target. And I think you’ve got to accept that as an owner. If you can’t take that kind of heat, then you shouldn’t be in that position. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Why not hide?

“The more you try to do that, the worse you make the situation,” he said.

Bowlen declines comment from time to time but has remained consistently accessible to the media, no matter how many shots he takes.

“I think that’s important, because we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “Quite a few owners aren’t actually running their clubs, so they have a president or somebody else that’s doing most of the talking for the club. I choose to have that position, so I’ve got to be prepared to follow through on it. That’s just part of our business.”

***

The lows were more common than the highs in his first decade, despite generally stellar regular season records.

“The toughest times, I know for sure, were losing three Super Bowls. Those are the toughest days that I can remember,” Bowlen said.

The best days are just as obvious. Both of them.

“Especially Super Bowl XXXII,” he said. “Not that XXXIII wasn’t a big thrill, too, but winning your first Super Bowl in that fashion, and being able to hand that trophy to John Elway, that’s the highlight of my career.”

Outside his office is an enormous photo of him in the locker room after that game, orange tie still tight, Vince Lombardi trophy clenched in one hand, mouth open in joy.

Next to it is a similarly sized blowup of Elway under center, calling signals, Terrell Davis in soft focus behind him. At the end of the hall is another, Shanahan in his headset on the sideline.

This is the tradition Bowlen has built.

***

A recent poll commissioned by the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-Channel 4 confirmed the Broncos’ place atop Denver’s crowded sports scene. More than half of Colorado sports fans identify the Broncos as their favorite local team.

You can attribute that to tradition, but having been around since 1967 didn’t help the Denver Nuggets, who finished behind “None.” Success drives fan loyalty, as the transplanted Colorado Avalanche proves.

Fans and media are reluctant to give Bowlen much credit. He’s not warm and cuddly. It’s easier to like players and coaches.

“To say I didn’t care about it would be a lie,” Bowlen said. “But I know enough about this industry, and Denver’s a pretty fierce place when it comes to its sports teams. So I’m extremely blessed with that, that I have a very solid city here that’s very supportive of the Denver Broncos. We’re No. 1, and that’s where I always want us to be.

“So I can’t get really upset about my image — my good image or my bad image. Because I realize if I do this for the rest of my life and they carry me out in a pine box, that’s when my image will be the best. That’s when they’ll say the best things.”

He laughed, then mentioned the late Art Rooney, who became beloved in Pittsburgh only near the end of his life. Of course, the Steelers were dreadful for a long time under Rooney.

Elway is gone and the Broncos are still Super Bowl contenders. Shanahan runs a tight ship, but someone hired him. Someone sets the tone.

If meddlesome, egotistical, venal owners are responsible for much of sport’s foolishness, then smart, dedicated, competitive owners must be responsible for some of its achievement.

In the past two decades, the Broncos have become a model franchise. That happens to be the Pat Bowlen era. And it ought to be recognized before he has any need of that pine box.

-30-

Much has been and will be written about Bowlen’s contribution to the Broncos’ emergence as NFL royalty during his three-decade run in the corner office. These days, with high-profile owners like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban running around, it’s no longer remarkable for an owner to act as chief executive of a franchise, but it still was in 1984. This is why the onset of what was today acknowledged as Bowlen’s Alzheimer’s disease presented something of a journalistic dilemma.

As our conversation 13 years ago reflected, Bowlen was his team’s chief spokesman on big-picture issues regarding the franchise for most of his time in charge. Several years ago, he stopped speaking publicly. Broncos fans, naturally, became curious about why. As a local columnist, I got questions about it regularly. Among people in and around the organization, his cognitive issues were an open secret. With Shanahan having consolidated power over all football-related matters, Bowlen’s silence didn’t seem like a big deal from a news standpoint. Shanahan could and would address pretty much anything that came up.

Shanahan’s firing at the end of the 2008 season changed all that. There were legitimate questions about the process that led to the selection of young Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as his replacement, as well as McDaniels’ rapid accumulation of total control of the football operation, something the organization had said would not happen again after Shanahan. These decisions were attributed at times to Bowlen and at times to Joe Ellis, who had become the owner’s right-hand man. Ellis was and is a business guy, not a football guy, a fact he readily acknowledges. After Jeff Legwold and I broke the initial story of Spygate II in the Denver Post on Nov. 27, 2010, I came to the conclusion that disarray in the Broncos organization required a look at the leadership of the franchise.

I told Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ former head of media relations and by then vice president of corporate communications, that I intended to research a column about Bowlen’s health and the state of the Broncos’ leadership as the club began a new coaching search. Jim referred me to Ellis, who agreed to speak with me on Dec. 1, 2010. Shortly before we were scheduled to talk, I received a call from the media relations staff letting me know the interview was off.

The next day, shortly after noon, I received an email from the sports editor at the Post, Scott Monserud, addressed to all three Post sports columnists — Woody Paige, Mark Kiszla and me. It instructed us not to write about or publicly discuss Bowlen’s health unless Bowlen chose to discuss it. Woody had already written his piece referring to Bowlen’s admission of “short-term memory loss.” We were to go no further. The instructions came from “the top, the very top,” according to Monserud. This was as clear as he could make it that they came from Dean Singleton, then owner and publisher of the Post, who had a close relationship with the Broncos. But just in case, Monserud added that the instructions came “from (editor) Greg (Moore), via Dean, to make sure we’re all on the same page.” I surmised that Ellis had called Dean, who told Moore to squash my inquiry.

I’d known Bowlen a long time and liked him very much. Our shared interest in endurance sports as younger men had created a bond of sorts, even if I couldn’t keep up with his six-minute miles. From a journalistic perspective, there was no question in my mind that he qualified as a public figure. And the many questions surrounding the Broncos following McDaniels’ firing made it seem to me an obvious and necessary avenue of inquiry.

I had no desire to cause Bowlen or his family any more pain than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does on its own, but I believed then and still do that the ability of a major business in town to call the local publisher and suppress an uncomfortable story was unhealthy.

Fortunately, Bowlen and/or Ellis salvaged the situation brilliantly by hiring Elway to run the football operation. A year later, Elway signed Peyton Manning to play quarterback and the glory days were back. The questions surrounding Bowlen’s health receded again until today’s announcement.

Until the last few years, Bowlen was as down-to-earth and accessible as any owner in sports. He devoted himself completely to his team’s success, and he achieved it. Thirty summers later, Colorado is poorer for his exit from the stage.


Hiatus

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As you may have gathered, the blog is on hiatus until further notice. Of my small cadre of loyal readers, a few will reply, “What do you call what it’s been on since the last post?”

Well, wise guys, that was more like suspended animation, waiting for the other shoe to drop. In the words of the Big Lebowski, there were a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. In the end, KOA decided to go in a different direction with its afternoon drive programming and let me go.

My media credentials to all local teams, venues and universities are invalid because they all say I’m representing KOA. For now, at least, I no longer have access to players and coaches, which is pretty important to the reporting I’ve done on the blog.

I don’t have any idea what happens next. For the last decade or so, I’ve been employed by three organizations that had one thing in common — they were shrinking. Layoffs and rumors of layoffs; buyouts and rumors of buyouts; an incessant, relentless emphasis on cutting, cutting, cutting.

I’d like to find a way to get on the other side of this curve if I can, to find an organization that’s growing and ambitious and trying to do more, not less. Maybe that’s in the media and maybe it’s not. It may be a pipe dream but there’s only one way to find out.

My plan is to let things shake out a bit, let it be known that a (ahem) veteran free agent is available and, you know, see what happens. My preference is to stay in Colorado, but my first priority is finding something inspiring to do with myself. If that turns out to require relocation, then that’s what’ll happen.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the always spectacular Colorado summer and take my time. I don’t want to rush into the wrong thing. For example, I already have an offer to become an insurance salesman. All respect to Needlenose Ned Ryerson, probably not going to do that.


End of the line

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Minnesota winger Nino Niederreiter’s winning goal in overtime of Game 7 bounced out of the net and hit Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov in the back of the leg before he could turn around.

The final score of the series was 22-20 over seven games. Three were empty-net goals, two by Minnesota and one by Colorado. Eliminate those and the final score was 20-19 in favor of Minnesota. Close, in other words.

But a pattern that developed over the first-round playoff series repeated itself in the decisive seventh game so insistently that it was hard not to get the point. In spurts of awe-inspiring talent, the Avalanche would take the lead. In long stretches of determined, opportunistic aggression, the Wild would catch the young Avs in mistakes and come back.

Colorado went up two games to none in the friendly confines of its own building, then scored one goal in two games in Minnesota as the Wild evened the series. The Avs took a 3-2 lead. The Wild tied it.

So it came down to one game, the fabled Game 7, which turned into a microcosm of the series. The Avs went up 1-0. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 2-1. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 3-2. The Wild tied it. The Avs went up 4-3. With two minutes, 27 seconds remaining in regulation, the Wild tied it, taking a page out of the Avs’ book.

And then, like a pool hustler, the Wild took its first lead of the game and first lead of the series with a game- and series-winning overtime goal, its fifth of the game. Suddenly, Minnesota is moving on, to play Chicago. Colorado, which had led or been tied the whole way, is done.

On the bright side, it wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to the San Jose Sharks, who went up three games to none on the Los Angeles Kings, then lost four in a row. That’s embarrassing. What happened to the Avs was not embarrassing. It was a rite of passage for a team whose best players range in age from 18 to 23.

“When you learn how to win, not how to win, but you have more experience in the playoffs, then obviously you start to know how to win those big games,” said Patrick Roy, whose first season as Avalanche coach ended on a bittersweet note.

“Those two goals, our neutral zone forecheck was good all night long and then all of a sudden we start making a couple mistakes here and there and they took advantage of it. This is a team that went through that last year with Chicago, got beat by, I think, four straight by Chicago, or five, I can’t remember the exact number [it was five], but it’s a learning process, and I think next year our guys in the playoffs might be a little more calm in those situations and react differently.”

Interesting concept, knowing how to win. The Avs proved they can win with desperation. They did it twice in the series, tying a game in the final two minutes, then winning it in overtime. But in a certain sense, desperation is easy. Your job is to go full bore to score because if you don’t, you lose. If your opponent scores into your empty net, well, you were going to lose anyway.

Protecting a one-goal lead is a different, more complicated art. You must be more concerned with defense, of course, but you can’t be so concerned with defense that you give away all aggressiveness and momentum, because at that point it’s just a matter of time before your opponent’s onslaught produces a goal. Whenever the Avalanche had the lead, in Game 7 or in the series, it seemed to be unsure how to handle it.

“It was a back-and-forth game,” said Matt Duchene, the team’s leading scorer during the regular season who returned from a knee injury to play in the last two games of the series, both losses as it turned out.

“What we can take away from this is at the end of a game like that when we need to clamp it down, we need to execute even better with the puck. And without it, we have to be sharp. You don’t let your heart race too much. You’ve got to stay in control and just get it done. It’s too bad we couldn’t get it done but we were right there. We were right there all night. We got the lead, I think, all game. Their only lead was the one that wins the game. So, disappointing.”

The enduring appeal of Game 7 has to do with finality. It’s like a Supreme Court decision. There is no appeal. This can produce an excruciatingly boring, careful sort of hockey, but it certainly didn’t Wednesday night at Pepsi Center.

This Game 7, the first for most of the Avs and a fair number of the Wild, started with a goal credited to Avalanche defenseman Nick Holden on a rebound just 2:52 into the game. As the puck was crossing the goal line, Avs winger Jamie McGinn was sliding into the cage and its tender, Darcy Kuemper. The goal was first waved off as goalie interference, then the light went on, then it was approved on appeal by Big Brother.

“That’s one of those plays where, obviously, when it goes in your net, you’re going to be frustrated about it,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said. “I would think that if we were on the other side, we would probably be expecting kind of a similar call. What I give our guys an awful lot of credit for is we didn’t get caught up in any of that stuff. We didn’t alter. There’s a lot of games through this series where I thought that we were playing very well through a game, something bad happened, and then we kind of got away. I thought just the composure, the character, to stay with our game, to stay with the process that we’ve set out and to trust it all the way through, that’s real impressive for our group.”

The Wild responded 8:04 into the first period when team captain Mikko Koivu fired a shot from the left circle. With Avs goaltender Semyon Varlamov hugging the right post of the goal, Koivu hit the inside of the left post, the first of a series of shots that appeared to be steered by a satellite-controlled global positioning system.

The Avs took the lead for the second time when Joey Hishon centered the puck from the right boards for McGinn, who didn’t shoot it so much as redirect Hishon’s pass on net. The puck slithered between Kuemper’s skates. After one period, the Avs led 2-1.

Minnesota tied it for the second time 7:27 into the second period. It was not recorded as a power play goal, but it grew out of a power play formation. A penalty to Hishon for high sticking had been over for two seconds when Mikael Granlund tried to replicate Koivu’s shot, aiming for the right-hand edge of the goal from the left offensive circle. Varlamov slid to his left to block it with his leg pad.

Unfortunately, the puck never got there. It hit Holden in the backside, ricocheted off McGinn’s shin pad and bounced to the ice, right in front of veteran Wild winger Dany Heatley. As the puck ran away from him, Heatley took a swipe and sent a knuckleball into the space Varlamov had vacated to block Granlund’s shot. When the second period ended, the score was 2-2.

The Avs took their third lead 2:55 into the third period. Winger P.A. Parenteau made a beautiful pass from behind the Minnesota net out to Paul Stastny, between the circles. Stastny one-timed it right back on net, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it bounce in.

The Wild tied it for the third time less than four minutes later, 6:33 into the third, when winger Nino Niederreiter took a pass at the top of the right circle and rifled a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder. You could hear the sound of the puck hitting metal. I’m not sure if it was the crossbar or the left post. I’m also not sure I’ve ever seen a game in which so many goals struck metal on the way in.

The Avs took the lead for the fourth time at 11:16 of the third, on a play that began with Parenteau splitting two Minnesota defensemen — Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin — and getting a point blank shot on Kuemper. The Wild goaltender made the save. Duchene, crashing the net, flicked the rebound over to the right circle, where Parenteau, circling back, passed it to defenseman Erik Johnson up high, by the Stanley Cup logo. Johnson drilled it past Kuemper.

Kuemper left the game shortly afterward and was replaced by Ilya Bryzgalov, who started Games 1 and 2 before being relieved. Kuemper conferred with the Minnesota trainer before departing. Bryzgalov would spend 13 minutes, 15 seconds in net. He would be credited with one save. It was a good one.

The Wild tied it for the fourth time with 2:27 left in regulation. By Avalanche standards, this was not exactly crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Yeo hadn’t even pulled his goaltender yet. The Avs tied Game 1 with 13.4 seconds remaining. They tied Game 5 with 1:14 left. This time, they were 2:27 away from winning the game and the series 4-3 and advancing to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the next round.

Then Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the one faked off his feet by Avs rookie Nathan MacKinnon in Game 2, took a pass in the right offensive circle. MacKinnon, hanging out between the circles, suddenly realized Spurgeon was uncovered and raced over. Spurgeon waited patiently, using the recovering MacKinnon’s momentum against him, just as MacKinnon had used Spurgeon’s against him five games earlier. Once MacKinnon slid helplessly past, Spurgeon lifted a shot over Varlamov’s right shoulder, hitting the inside of the left post and watching it ricochet into the net.

Afterward, the 18-year-old MacKinnon blamed himself for the tying goal.

“I think Mac learned a lot tonight,” Roy said. “It’s a different game. He knows what he can do offensively. Now he’s learning sometimes defensively he’s going to have to do some things a little different. But that makes him already a better hockey player, and that’s what you want. But I don’t want any of my players blaming themselves for the loss. We win and we lose as a team and tonight we lost as a team.”

It was 4-4 at the end of regulation. The Avalanche had its best chance to win the game in overtime a little more than two minutes in. MacKinnon had the puck on the left side as part of a three-on-two with Johnson in the middle and Gabriel Landeskog on the right side. MacKinnon stopped by the left boards, gathered the puck and centered it to a trailing Stastny, who lifted it toward the top right corner of the goal. Bryzgalov got just enough of his left shoulder on the shot to deflect it wide of the post.

Moments later, Minnesota had a chance to win when Granlund beat Duchene to the puck and took a point-blank shot at Varlamov, trying to squeeze it inside the left post. Varlamov kicked it away.

Almost five minutes into the overtime, the Avs had another chance when Johnson centered the puck for Parenteau in the crease. The pass was deflected out to Heatley, who passed it up the ice to center Kyle Brodziak, who found himself alongside Niederreiter with only Avs defenseman Andre Benoit between them and the goal. Brodziak passed the puck to Niederreiter. Benoit retreated, trying to cover them both.

As Niederreiter approached the net from the right side, Benoit slid to the ice and tried to get in front of him to block his shot. Niederreiter lifted the puck just wide of Benoit over Varlamov’s right shoulder. It hit the crossbar and ricocheted into the back of the net with such velocity that it bounced back out and hit Varlamov on the back of the leg before he could turn around to see where it had gone. The officials had to review it to make sure it had gone in. The overhead camera confirmed it did.

The Wild exulted by the boards, feeling all the jubilation of its first lead in the game, first lead in the series, and a series victory all at once. The Avs stood around for a few moments in disbelief that their first moment trailing in the game, first moment trailing in the series, could also be the end of the whole thing.

“We felt confident,” said Landeskog, the team captain. “We felt like we had it. Every time we scored I felt like we had all the momentum. And then they came back, whether it was off the rush or whatever it might have been, and yeah, I mean, they did a good job. We’ve got to tip our hats to them. They deserved this one. They made nice plays. Every single goal was nice. So it’s tough. We worked so hard. Game 7, we had the crowd with us and we worked so hard and then it goes the wrong way. It’s a weird feeling.”

Center-turned-winger Ryan O’Reilly was angry.

“We didn’t become a team in the toughest times,” he said. “Our performance was embarrassing on the road, and it’s something we have to learn. Definitely if you can’t win on the road, you’re never going to win a Cup. We were lucky to have a chance to win tonight with how inconsistent we were all series. Definitely not happy with this. This is embarrassing for us. We could have done a lot better. It sucks. It’s frustrating.”

In time, this will be a relatively easy one to swallow. The Avs are ridiculously young. As an organization, it was the first trip to the postseason in four years. It was also the first season under Roy as coach and Joe Sakic running the front office hockey operation. In time, it will look like a preview of coming attractions.

Still, they had persuaded themselves they could do more right away.

“As much as we were dreaming it would be possible to win the Stanley Cup, we knew it would be tough for us to win the Stanley Cup because we’re not there yet,” Roy said. “It’s hard to say that, but it’s a fact.”


Cardiac kids

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P.A. Parenteau scores the tying goal with 1:14 remaining in regulation in Game 5 of the Avs-Wild playoff series.

This is beginning to get on the State of Hockey’s nerves. It’s not just the aggrieved Minnesota coach, Mike Yeo, who seems to believe his team should be up four games to one, which would mean it wouldn’t have to play Game 6 on Monday night.

Here on Earth, his team is down three games to two after the Avalanche tied a game very late for the second time in the series, then won in overtime, 4-3.

The reporters covering the Wild seemed as offended as the coach. One asked Yeo if the Avalanche was just lucky. Another mentioned how the penalty calls were, like, totally unfair.

That was certainly how Avalanche power forward Gabriel Landeskog felt when referee Brad Meier gave Minnesota a power play with 4:33 left in regulation and Colorado trailing 3-2. The Avs captain had come to a sudden stop in front of the crease, spraying Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper with snow. This is a violation of hockey etiquette, such as it is, requiring the usual pushing and shoving. It is often accompanied by a stern warning from the referee. It can also be a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, depending on everybody’s mood.

Meier chose this moment to make it a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was a terrible penalty for the Avs, who needed all the time available to try to tie the game. Now they would have to waste half of it killing a penalty. Landeskog had an extended conversation with Meier on his way to the penalty box and it did not look like they were making dinner plans.

“To be honest with you, it just came down to me not agreeing with him,” Landeskog explained. “Whether I snowed (Kuemper) or not, I think it’s still four minutes to go in a Game 5, a one-goal game. I think it’s a tough call for him to make. They’ve been hacking and whacking on Varly all night and (Kuemper) gets a little snow in his face. Whether it’s unsportsmanlike or not, I think it’s playoff hockey and I think it’s a tough call for him to make.”

Make it he did, which meant Avs coach Patrick Roy had to wait to pull goaltender Semyon Varlamov until Landeskog escaped the box two minutes later.

“It was hard to remain calm after the call,” Roy said. “But when I look at the clock, it said we’ll have two minutes and some seconds; then we had to kill that (penalty). That was a huge kill. The penalty kill was without a doubt outstanding for us tonight. The guys did a really good job. They sacrificed their bodies, they blocked shots. I was very happy with them. They gave us a chance to win this game.”

By the time Varlamov got off the ice, about 2:20 remained, or 41 seconds fewer than in Game 1.

Didn’t matter. The Avs are getting better at this 6-on-5 hockey, which Roy has them practicing at every morning skate. They didn’t score until 13.4 seconds remained in Game 1. Saturday night, they tied it up with 1:14 to spare. Eighteen-year-old Nathan MacKinnon took over, as he did in Game 2.

In the feverish 6-on-5, MacKinnon brought the puck up the left side and slid a pass to center Paul Stastny near the left post of the Minnesota goal. Stastny tried to drill it through Kuemper from the side, but it bounced off the goaltender to the side of the net. Stastny regained control and slid it toward center ice in front of the net. Landeskog was coming down the slot, ready to take the shot, when P.A. Parenteau swooped in from the right, stretched as close to the net as he could, his knee almost touching the ice, and flicked the puck past Kuemper’s glove to tie the game.

“I was just coming out of the penalty box, so I was a little pissed off,” Landeskog said. “I certainly wanted to put one home and I wanted to tie it up. When I saw P.A.’s puck go in, it was certainly a good feeling. The fans, I’m surprised nobody gets a heart attack when this keeps happening. It’s exciting, but we don’t want to make a habit of it.”

But why not? Everybody loves cardiac kids. As Roy pointed out afterward, that’s entertainment.

“Our fans had a heck of a show here tonight,” he said. “And hopefully we’re going to give another good one over there as well.” Game 6 is Monday night in St. Paul.

MacKinnon has been the best player in the series, dominating the three games in Colorado with 10 points. He assisted on three of the five goals in Game 1, scored one and set up three more in Game 2, set up two and scored the overtime winner in Game 5.

“The best part is cheering with the guys in the huddle with you,” MacKinnon said of the winner. “My helmet got ripped off in the celebration, so it’s pretty exciting and it definitely ranks at the top of my list.”

The play began along the boards, where Ryan Wilson and Landeskog sabotaged the Wild’s attempt to clear the zone. From the left boards, Landeskog passed the puck to MacKinnon, who was skating through the left circle with Minnesota defenseman Marco Scandella between him and the net.

The rookie took the pass on his forehand, slid the puck around Scandella with his backhand, then returned to the forehand to rip a shot to the upper right corner of the goal. Hugging the opposite post against MacKinnon’s onslaught, Kuemper had no chance.

“I was kind of screaming for the puck from Landy,” MacKinnon said. “With Landy making a great heads-up play to me, Paulie good on the forecheck, I just kind of fired it on net and thankfully, I don’t know if it tipped off the defenseman or not, but I’m definitely very fortunate that it went in.

“There was a bit of a screen there, I thought. I don’t know if he really saw it or whatever happened. I don’t really remember the goal that well, to be honest with you. I blacked out. But it definitely was a very memorable goal and it definitely ranks at the top of my list.”

The Minnesota coach seemed to feel that justice demanded a right of appeal or something.

“It is what it is,” he said. “To sit here and dwell on it I don’t think is going to do us any good. Obviously frustrating, obviously disappointing, but the bottom line is it’s not going to do us any good.”

So far, the home team has won every game in the series, so I asked Yeo if the buildings really make that much difference. I forgot that he thinks his team outplayed the Avalanche in two of the three Colorado wins, except for those unfortunate last few minutes.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, did it seem to in the third period? I would say that we were off our game for parts of the first two periods, but I thought for the most part . . . obviously, if things happen a little differently in the last minute and a half, then we’re not saying that. There’s no question that there’s probably more momentum swings, but for the most part I think that we’ve played two out of three pretty darn good games in here.”

In short, the State of Hockey seems to feel like it’s getting jobbed.

“I would say that we’re due for, I don’t want to say luck, but we’re due for some stuff here to go our way a little bit,” Yeo said.

By contrast, the Avs do not claim they played well enough to win in Minnesota, where they scored one goal in two games. They’ve scored 13 in three games at home.

“I think we learned a lot from the first two games [in St. Paul],” MacKinnon said. “We’re not going to be rushing the puck as much. We’re going to be very much more poised — making good plays, better on the forecheck and things like that. We’ve made some adjustments since the last game in Minnesota.”

“The first two games were bad games and we’ve got to bring in a good performance Monday night,” said Stastny, his linemate.

The biggest change for Game 6 might be giving the MacKinnon-Stastny-Landeskog line a little help. Matt Duchene, the Avs’ leading scorer during the regular season, may be ready to return from his knee injury.

“We’re going to take a serious look at it,” Roy said.


Treading water

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

Center fielder Charlie Blackmon has been an early bright spot for the Rocks, sharing the National League batting lead with an average of .406 through the first 20 games.

It was one of those Colorado days Sunday at the ballyard. Bright blue sky, big crowd, lots of hits, lots of runs, no discernible sign of professional pitching.

This was in marked contrast to the Rockies’ three previous games — the finale of the last road trip in San Diego and the first two home games against the Phillies — in which they got shockingly good pitching, putting together their first three-game winning streak of the season by scores of 3-1, 12-1 and 3-1.

This is really the only question that matters about the 2014 edition of the Rocks. If they pitch like that even half the time, they will be pretty good. If they don’t, they won’t.

“Yeah, the game tends to fall into place when you get starting pitching,” manager Walt Weiss said before Sunday’s game when I asked him about that three-game stretch.

“That’s the key to this game. I don’t care what level you’re playing at. You get good starting pitching, you’re usually in good shape. We’ve had some guys step up. We’re talking about missing three of the top guys in our rotation to start the season. I think if you did that to any rotation in baseball, it’d be a challenge. So the fact that we’ve had guys step up and respond to the call has been really encouraging to me. And one of those guys is the guy that threw (Saturday) night, Jordan Lyles. He’s really been giving us a shot in the arm.”

Through 20 games, or 13 percent of the season, the Rocks are 10-10, and their team stats are pretty much what we’ve come to expect. At home, in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, they’re a sensational offensive team, batting .354. Their OPS of .978 is 160 points higher than the next best home team.

On the road, they’re a mediocre to poor offense, their team OPS of .662 ranking 20th among the 30 big league clubs.

Troy Tulowitzki is batting .667 at home with two homers and 10 runs batted in. He’s batting .229 on the road with no homers and two RBI.

Carlos Gonzalez is batting .375 at home, .205 on the road. Charlie Blackmon’s splits are .486 and .313; Michael Cuddyer’s .417 and .250.

As anyone who has followed the Rockies for any appreciable amount of time knows, numbers such as these are an occupational hazard of playing here. The home numbers are inflated by the Coors Field factor and the road numbers are depressed by the increased movement of pitches at or near sea level and the constant adjustment Rockies hitters must make as they switch elevations throughout the season.

You might expect the reverse effect on their pitching numbers, and over large sample sizes and multiple years, you get it. But so far this year, they’re actually pitching better at Coors Field than on the road with a home earned-run average of 3.78 and road ERA of 4.55. For individual pitchers, of course, the sample size so far is ridiculously small.

The most encouraging single development, by far, has been the work of Lyles, as Weiss noted. He would not even be in the rotation if it weren’t for a sore hamstring that kept Tyler Chatwood from making his first couple of starts. Unaffected by Coors Field and its reputation for driving pitchers insane, Lyles has thrown his power sinker and big breaking curve ball at elevation with considerable early success, giving up one earned run in 13 2/3 innings for a home ERA of 0.66. He and Chatwood have been the Rockies’ only reliable starters so far.

As Weiss noted, the pitching staff remains a work in progress due to injury. Jhoulys Chacin, a 14-game winner last year, has yet to make his first start as he works his way back from shoulder stiffness in the spring. Brett Anderson, acquired from Oakland during the offseason along with a history of being prone to injury, broke a finger hitting a ground ball and is out at least a month after making just three starts. De La Rosa, a 16-game winner a year ago, has yet to find his groove, although his most recent start, his fourth of the season, was his best. Juan Nicasio and Franklin Morales have been predictably unpredictable.

The bullpen has been very good for stretches and very bad for stretches. Sunday, with a chance to sweep a series for the first time this season, it gave up five runs to the Phillies in four innings of work. Matt Belisle took the loss, but Boone Logan had the worst day, surrendering three runs, two earned, and retiring just one batter, as the Rocks fell 10-9.

Despite what looks like a sensational defensive team on paper, they are in the middle of the pack with 12 errors in 20 games, three of them at the catcher position, and that doesn’t include two run-scoring passed balls by backup Jordan Pacheco in just five games wearing the gear. It’s nice to have guys who can hit behind the plate, but so far the poor defense has more than made up for the offensive contributions of Pacheco and Wilin Rosario.

The much-maligned Dexter Fowler trade is working out pretty well so far. It produced their best starter to date in Lyles, and it freed up the money to sign free agent Justin Morneau, who looks like a classic Coors Field reclamation project in the tradition of Andres Galarraga and Dante Bichette. Morneau is batting .364 and leads the club in RBI with 15 in the early going. He’s also avoided the dramatic splits, batting .367 at Coors and .324 elsewhere.

The fragility of their star players was a big factor in last season’s long, slow-motion collapse, and it’s already been an issue this year. Tulowitzki, Gonzalez and Cuddyer have already missed time with leg issues, a troublesome sign. It might be time to bring in a yoga instructor.

It’s early, of course. April numbers are overly examined because they’re the only numbers we have when everybody is still excited about the possibilities. Last year the Rocks went 16-11 in April and finished 74-88.

When I asked Weiss if he liked where his team is through 20 games, this is what he said:

“I like our club. I like the mentality of our club. I think our guys will fight through the tough stuff and I think that’s the X factor in this league. And I think we have that. So, yeah, I like where we’re at.”

So far, the Rocks are who we thought they were — a big-time offense at home, a small-time offense on the road and mediocre on the mound pretty much everywhere, except for that promising stretch of three games at the end of last week. If Chacin returns soon, De La Rosa finds his form and Lyles and Chatwood continue what they’ve started, the pitching could be better than mediocre. If the hitting stars can stay on the field and learn to play more situational ball on the road, the offense could be more consistently productive.

That’s a lot of ifs. The promise is there, but that’s still all it is.


A star is born

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn't the Avs' best player.

Semyon Varlamov was terrific in Game 2, but he wasn’t the Avs’ best player.

When the NHL playoffs began, oddsmakers really had no idea who might emerge as an offensive force for the Avalanche. The club’s leading scorer during the regular season, Matt Duchene, was injured. So one offshore sports book set the over/under on points in the first round at 4.5. For everybody.

Paul Stastny was 4.5, Gabriel Landeskog was 4.5, Ryan O’Reilly was 4.5, Nathan MacKinnon was 4.5.

Through two games, the 18-year-old MacKinnon already has seven, tying an NHL record for the first two playoff games of a career. The 28-year-old Stastny has matched him. They are playing alongside Landeskog, the 21-year-old team captain, on a line that has dominated the first two games since coming together out of necessity late in Game 1. What’s remarkable is it wasn’t a line at all when the series began.

“We wanted to try in the first game Nate in the middle with Ryan and P.A. [Parenteau] and then we went back to this,” coach Patrick Roy explained after MacKinnon, the favorite to win the league’s Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, put on a show nobody on hand will soon forget.

He didn’t merely use his speed to fly through and around the Wild, he embarrassed and ultimately intimidated the visitors from Minnesota. One is tempted to use the cliche that he was a man among boys, except, of course, MacKinnon is a boy among men, and he’s making his elders look helpless.

His first goal of the series came six minutes and 20 seconds into Game 2, after Minnesota had taken the early lead by chesting a rebound into the net just ahead of the chester, center Charlie Coyle, who drove the goal assembly off its moorings and forced a video review to determine whether he or the puck had penetrated first. The puck won and the goal counted.

Two minutes later, Stastny picked up the puck deep in his own end and fed MacKinnon on the left side inside the Avs’ blue line. MacKinnon took the pass, veered right and carried it around Wild center Mikko Koivu as if he were standing still. The first pick in the 2013 draft accelerated across the red line with all three Wild forwards in pursuit. In front of him were the Minnesota defensemen, Nate Prosser and Jared Spurgeon.

Prosser was to MacKinnon’s left and never got into the play. Spurgeon was slightly to his right. The Wild defenseman slid to his right to block MacKinnon’s path to the net. The Avs rookie looked for a moment as if he would blow between them. Then he swerved right. Spurgeon, whose momentum was taking him the wrong way, suddenly found himself in a Marx Bros. movie. His left skate went out from under him, his stick rose high in the air, as if seeking divine guidance, and he crashed to the ice. The only thing missing was the laugh track.

Wide open now, MacKinnon slid into the right circle and fired the puck over goalie Ilya Bryzgalov’s left shoulder.

“I wanted to kind of fake to the middle and kind of jump to the outside,” MacKinnon said afterward. “I didn’t know that I’d have that much room. Obviously, I was pretty fortunate that he bit on it, I guess, and I just kind of fired it on net and thankfully it went in.”

“I was laughing,” Stastny said. “That’s unbelievable. You don’t see that a lot. When he has that much speed, you’ve got to respect him. One little shoulder fake and that’s what happens. If he doesn’t cross over, he probably goes right down the middle. That shows how much respect they have for him and that shows how good he is at kind of shifting his weight. That was a pretty sweet goal.”

Not quite three minutes into the second period, Stastny and MacKinnon combined on almost exactly the same start, except this time they weren’t quite as deep in their own end. Stastny got the puck by the left boards and fed MacKinnon on the Colorado side of the center line. Again, MacKinnon carried the puck right around Koivu in the neutral zone and gathered speed as he approached the retreating defensemen.

Ryan Suter didn’t want to do a Spurgeon-like pratfall, so he retreated faster and was ready to go with MacKinnon when he went wide. That left a hole in the middle, so MacKinnon deftly dropped the puck to Landeskog, who was trailing him, yelling, “Drop it! Drop it!”

“Sure was,” Landeskog said with a smile. “He came through the neutral zone with speed and I saw that I had some room around me and Nate kind of took the D wide and made a nice drop pass to me and I had some room so I tried to get the shot off real quick.”

Landeskog drilled the puck over Bryzgalov’s glove and it was 2-1.

“I knew Landy was coming late,” MacKinnon said. “I didn’t know he had that much time, but I heard him yelling, so kind of like my first goal, I just wanted to cut to the outside and I heard him yelling and obviously, that was a heck of a shot by Landy.”

MacKinnon wasn’t finished. Nine minutes later, he did it again, taking a pass from defenseman Tyson Barrie on the far left side, again on Colorado’s side of the red line. This time he went around Koivu by passing the puck to himself off the boards. He dashed past Spurgeon into the left corner, then backhanded the puck to Stastny in the left circle, who spun and backhanded it to Landeskog coming up the slot. With Bryzgalov hugging the right side of the goal against MacKinnon’s charge, the entire left side of the net was wide open for Landeskog, who chipped it in.

“He’s terrorizing them right now with his speed,” Avalanche analyst Peter McNab said on the telecast.

“Paulie and I, we know when we play with him to use his speed and get it to him in the neutral zone,” said Landeskog, who has three points in the series so far, all of them goals. “He’s going to take ‘em wide, and then we have to yell at him a little bit to use us, but he certainly did tonight, and it paid off. The skills he’s got, the way he skates, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

Minnesota coach Mike Yeo was at a loss, so he switched goaltenders at 3-1, but the game was pretty much over. When Yeo pulled his second goaltender, Darcy Kuemper, near the end, the Avs had a Parenteau empty-netter disallowed on a dubious offsides call, gave up a shorthanded goal with a minute and 19 seconds remaining, missed an empty-netter when Stastny hit a post, then finally scored into the empty net when MacKinnon insisted on feeding Stastny one more time. The final was 4-2. The series moves to Minnesota with Colorado up two games to none.

“That line was on fire tonight,” Roy said. “They played really well. Landy and Paulie and Nate, I mean they had an outstanding game. They were moving the puck really well. They were skating well. Was it the third or second goal when Paulie went from behind to put it to Landy? That was, wow, that was a super play. But I have to say one thing here: All our guys played really well. I thought that was a really good team win.”

Nobody wants to lather up the 18-year-old, for all the obvious reasons, but this kid sounded like a player twice his age. Somebody asked him which goal he would celebrate more, the first or second.

“I think I’d like to forget about everything tonight,” he said. “I’m definitely proud of the way the team played and the way Paulie and Landy played, but for me, I just want to kind of forget about it and get ready for practice tomorrow. Obviously, it’s always nice to have some personal success, but it’s not the main thing for me at all.”

Perhaps the most pronounced effect he’s having is to tame the Wild’s aggressiveness when he’s on the ice. If he has just one or two men to beat, he’s proved he can not only do it, he can embarrass them in the process.

“It’s a matter of continuing to press, continuing to push, but doing it with a sense of, I don’t want to say caution, but at the same time we have to be very understanding and aware in particular of who you’re on the ice against and making sure that while you’re pressing, while you’re pushing, you’re not opening yourself up too,” said Yeo, the Wild coach.

The fact that an 18-year-old who was playing juniors last season is doing this to a good NHL team is stunning.

“At 18, I was in college,” said Stastny. “I was enjoying my time. I was at DU. I think 18-year-olds now compared to 10 years ago are different. Body-wise, they’re more mature, they’re more advanced, whether they start working out or the science kind of develops them a little earlier. But at the same time, he’s unbelievable. We’ve seen it all year, since the beginning of training camp, so every time something happens, it doesn’t really surprise us.”

“I think since Christmas he’s been getting better every night, which is pretty scary stuff,” Parenteau said.

And it wasn’t just at the glory end. The three scoring plays all began in the Avs’ end, which, in Roy’s system, is no accident.

“You guys are looking at points,” Roy told reporters, “but I’m looking at how he performed both sides of the ice. He’s been playing well offensively, yes, but he also played really well defensively. He made some great plays and that’s what I want to see from him. I’m happy when he puts points on the board, but I want him to play well defensively, and that’s what that line did.”

Colorado hockey fans have seen great players dominate playoff games before — Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Roy himself.

Which reminds me, goaltender Semyon Varlamov was back on his game after allowing four goals in Game 1. Saturday night, he stopped 30 of 32 shots. Of the two that made it through, one was the aforementioned chester by a charging center who literally ran into the puck.

“It’s a team game,” Varlamov said. “When the team plays better, I play better.”

“I didn’t make too much of the first game,” Roy said. “In my opinion, he played well enough to win. A goalie don’t need always to be perfect. He needs to find a way to win. And tonight, he was rock solid. He made some key saves at the right time. That’s the type of performance I was, not expecting, but I thought he was going to offer. I mean, I’m having so much confidence in him. He’s been our best player all year and tonight it was just a solid game from him.”

Good as he was, Varlamov was not Colorado’s best player in Game 2. Seldom have hockey fans anywhere been treated to a show of athletic virtuosity as transcendent as Nathan MacKinnon provided Saturday night.


Going all in

Image

The average length of a shift on the ice in the NHL is less than a minute. It’s basically a series of sprints — what is known as anaerobic activity. Once a player gets into severe oxygen debt, he’s likely to screw up, so coaches are constantly exchanging gassed players for fresh legs.

The leader in ice time per shift this season was Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson, who averaged 57.5 seconds. Perhaps because they play half their games at an elevation a mile high, the Colorado Avalanche tends toward shorter shifts than usual. Their leader in ice time per shift this year, Matt Duchene, their leading scorer, averaged 50.4 seconds, which ranked 64th in the league.

So when Avs coach Patrick Roy sent his six top players (not including Duchene, who is currently injured) onto the ice trailing 4-3 with just over three minutes to play in regulation Thursday night, he knew he was rolling the dice. They weren’t coming off until they tied the game, gave up a decisive empty-net goal or heard the final horn.

“All in,” Roy said afterward. “There was nothing else but all in. I have a lot of trust in my players. I asked them a couple times if they needed a timeout. I not only have a lot of trust in them, but I know they’re going to give everything they have. And sometimes you just want to push the limits. I thought they did a great job.”

For three frantic minutes, those six — defensemen Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, forwards Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Gabriel Landeskog and rookie Nathan MacKinnon — dominated possession of the puck, peppering the Minnesota Wild defense, looking for the opening that would allow them to extend the first playoff game at Pepsi Center in four years.

With a little more than a minute and a half remaining, Wild center Erik Haula got his stick on the puck in his own zone and backhanded it into the air, clearing the zone. As the puck bounced and skittered up the empty ice toward the Avalanche zone, the sellout crowd of 18,074 let out a collective groan, realizing it was headed for the Avs’ empty net.

An exhausted Johnson, on the ice for a game-high 30 minutes, 22 seconds by the time it was over, went tearing after it. As it neared the Colorado net, the bouncing puck landed on its edge and began to roll, which seemed to slow it slightly. Well into the crease, inches from the goal line, Johnson reached his stick as far as it would go and slapped the puck aside. The big defenseman then crashed into the net, knocking it off its moorings.

“Originally, I didn’t think it was going to go in,” Johnson said. “I didn’t think it had enough speed. Then it landed and it picked up speed and I thought, ‘I’m not going to get there.’ Then it kind of slowed down a little bit and I just got there at the end before it went over the goal line and inadvertently knocked the net off, which actually helped.”

That’s because the officials had to re-establish the Avalanche goal, which gave the Avs a desperately-needed break. Roy waited until the net was re-established before using his timeout, giving his top troops a couple of minutes to catch their breath with 1:32 on the game clock.

Goaltender Semyon Varlamov returned briefly for the ensuing face-off, then abandoned the net once more for a sixth skater. Again, the Avs’ six controlled the puck in the Minnesota zone, moving it back to front, side to side, looking for an opening. All five Wild skaters surrounded the crease and dug in.

With about 30 seconds remaining, Johnson took a shot from the Stanley Cup logo near the blue line. Wild goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov blocked it. The rebound bounced out to O’Reilly in the left circle. He saw an opening to slip it through the slot to Landeskog on the weak side, but the bouncing puck skittered over the Avalanche captain’s stick to the boards.

With a little more than 20 seconds showing, Landeskog retrieved the puck and slipped it down the boards to Stastny in the right corner. He tried to return it, but Minnesota defenseman Jared Spurgeon blocked his pass. Stastny regained control and backhanded the puck behind the net to MacKinnon, the 18-year-old rookie.

MacKinnon looked to return it, but Spurgeon had Stastny covered. With the calm of a player twice his age, the rookie turned and looked around the net to the other side. Wild defenseman Ryan Suter made a move to challenge him, then thought better of it and returned to the front of the net. Unmolested, MacKinnon took his time and spied Johnson above the defense, all alone near the top of the left circle. He sent a crisp pass directly to the tape of Johnson’s stick. When the puck hit it, the clock showed 17.6 seconds left in the game.

Johnson’s view of the goal was blocked by Wild winger Jason Pominville and, behind him, Suter. He waited a split second for an opening between Pominville and his stick, then shot the puck through it toward the right-hand edge of the goal. Bryzgalov slid left to block it. The puck rebounded off his left leg pad to Stastny, who flipped it just over the goaltender and just under the crossbar for the tying goal.

The clock showed 13.4 seconds. Roy’s gamble had paid off. About half an hour later, 7:27 into the first overtime period, Stastny would score again, from a similar position, to give the Avs an unlikely 5-4 victory and a 1-0 series lead in the quarterfinal playoff matchup.

Afterward, somebody asked Roy if he pulled his goalie with three minutes left because it was the playoffs.

“We almost done it at four minutes,” Roy said. “That went through my mind. I mean, at one point they had their third [defensive] pairing on the ice and we said, ‘Should we give a shot at it?’ I thought that was a little pushy. But at the same time, you have to go with your gut feeling. This is what playoffs are.”

Conventionally, NHL coaches facing one-goal deficits don’t pull their goaltenders until about a minute remains. But if you’ve watched the Avs all year, you probably weren’t surprised Roy did it earlier. Down two goals at home to the Boston Bruins in March, Roy pulled Varlamov with five minutes remaining.

“Every morning skate for the past, almost, last month, we practice our six-on-five,” Roy said. “You always hope that eventually it pay off. You don’t know when, but when it happens, you’re pretty happy. Tonight, it could be a key moment in our playoff run. It’s always important to try to score in those situations and if you do, it certainly gives some momentum. You’re talking in playoffs to get some momentum. I think this win for us should be a lot of momentum to our team.”

Roy’s first season as the Avalanche coach has already been magical. His rhetorical question — Why not us? — has become a mantra and, of course, a Twitter hashtag. The team had not put up 100 points in a season since 2004, the year after Roy retired as a player. It had not finished first in its division since the year before that, Roy’s final season as its goaltender.

For many of its young players, including four of the six on the ice for the tying goal — Barrie, Johnson, Landeskog and MacKinnon — it was the first NHL playoff game of their lives.

“I was nervous early,” Johnson admitted. “I was a little jittery, but I got my legs under me so I could move my feet, felt a lot better about the game, and what a comeback. That’s the kind of stuff you dream about when you’re a kid, is winning playoff games like that.”

“It was a lot better than I even dreamed of,” MacKinnon said. “Before the game, I got to call my dad and it was just kind of cool. All my life this is kind of what I was preparing for. I’ve always wanted to play in the playoffs. I had goosebumps twice in the game — when we came out and kind of skated around, the fans gave us a standing ovation, and they gave us another standing ovation after the game. It was definitely a pretty special feeling for everybody.”

“It beat all my expectations,” echoed Landeskog. “It was unbelievable. The goosebumps I had skating out there for the start of the game and seeing all those pom-poms, I was just smiling and my heartbeat was racing. I was looking up and it was unbelievable.”

By the final minutes of the third period, the goosebumps were long gone. Playing for what seemed like an eternity in front of an open net, the young Avs came of age.

“It was definitely an emotional roller coaster,” said MacKinnon, the favorite for the league’s rookie-of-the-year award. “I think we got on the ice at 3:05 of the third and got off at 13 seconds or something. I can’t say that I have a ton of energy in the tank right now. I’m so glad that we had an intermission after the third period.”

“They’re young guys, they’re having fun out here,” said a smiling Stastny, the old man of the final six at 28. “MacKinnon’s 18. I don’t think he worries if he’s playing fast or not, he keeps playing the same way. Maybe we were a little nervous, maybe we were back a little bit, but all year we kind of played the same game and kept going at ‘em and that’s what the focus was.”

The Avs played far from their best game. Minnesota dominated the second period, when it took a 4-2 lead. In the subsequent intermission, Roy told his team just to win the third period. Don’t worry about anything else; just win the period. With a little help from his riverboat gamble, that’s what they did.


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