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.