Tag Archives: Matt Duchene

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.


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

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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.


Coffee with Josh Kroenke

Josh Kroenke is a busy guy. At 33, he’s the top executive of both the Nuggets and Avalanche and, of course, the son of their owner, E. Stanley Kroenke. He’s also coming off a year in which he put his stamp on both franchises, naming new front office executives (Tim Connelly and Joe Sakic) and new head coaches (Patrick Roy and Brian Shaw). He joined me for a cup of joe this morning at a Starbucks not far from his office at the Pepsi Center.

Q: You reset both organizations last year, front office and coaching. Let’s start with the hockey team. How do you think it’s going so far? How do you think, in particular, Joe is transitioning into his new role?

A: I think Joe’s doing a wonderful job. Joe is a great communicator. Obviously, I think that Patrick has done a very good job as well. I think everybody is doing a really good job in their new roles. It’s good to see the cohesion that the organization has. Top to bottom, there’s communication at all different levels, and if someone is doing something that someone else thinks they can do better, or they think they can do differently, no one is afraid to communicate about it. And I think that’s great.

Q: Were you surprised at how fast they got out of the gate?

A: I think we all were. I think that’s a credit to Patrick, but most important that’s a credit to the players. It’s been a rough few years, and we knew when we reset it a few years ago, going young, it was going to take a few years to kind of come together. But I think as fast as it’s come together over these past few months, it’s been great to see, because we knew we had some young talent there. It was just a matter of pointing it in the right direction.

Q: How long did you think it was going to take to be a playoff team?

A: I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping that we had the right guys in charge, and I think with Patrick and Joe, and Greg [Sherman] as well, I think we do. I think that they’re all doing a great job and I think that with the youngsters, seeing everyone buy in, and then the veterans we have on the squad as well, it’s been really rewarding for me to see how quickly they’ve turned it around. It’s a lot of fun for me to be a part of.

Q: Was the Elway model part of your thinking when you decided to go with Joe?

A: I don’t know John very well, but I’ve had the privilege to kind of talk to him here and there and pick his brain a little bit. With guys like John and Joe, guys that have competed so long in their respective sports, and with the kind of people they are, I think it lends very well to leading an organization like they do. I think Joe and John know each other a little bit. I don’t know how well they know each other. But I know that Joe respects John, obviously. As far as the John Elway model, I didn’t look into it too much. I looked at making sure we got the right guy for the job.

Q: Traditionally it sort of defies history because the history of great players as coaches or GMs isn’t great. And yet it seems as though in this town anyway there are now two models where it seems to be working pretty well. Did you go into that, in terms of the history of it?

A: You know, I didn’t go into it too much. I wanted to make sure we had the right people and the right personalities for the job. At the end of the day, you can’t be afraid to put the time in and really put the work in. I think that John and Joe are both spectacular examples of that. Knowing Joe and knowing John a little bit, I know they take what they do very seriously and they’re both winners and they want to win. And until they get to that point, I know that neither of them are happy.

Q: You came to your positions with a lot more background in basketball than hockey. How has your personal evolution gone with the game of hockey?

A: You know, it’s been a lot of fun. I really enjoy the game. To understand it on a level that I do now as opposed to where I was when I first moved to Denver is night and day. It’s a great game. I can see why so many people love it and so many guys want to get into it at a young age. It’s a true team sport. You meet a lot of great people. Throughout the league, in all these organizations that I’ve had the privilege of being around, it’s wonderful people. Very humble people and a lot of hard workers and they love the game just as much as John loves football or Brian Shaw loves basketball. It’s a great sport to be a part of. The individual stars are going to play well, but it’s all about the hockey assist — who can set up their man and who can set up their teammates. I think it’s probably my favorite sport to attend in person. Sitting down on the glass of an NHL game is an unbelievable experience.

Q: What’s been your approach to how close or distant you want to stay from the players?

A: That’s evolved over time. Particularly on the basketball side, when I moved here, I knew a lot of the guys. I played against them. I played with Linas Kleiza in college. That’s kind of evolved over time from a peer-to-peer relationship and now that I’m in kind of a supervisor role in both organizations, I’m still close with the guys, I like to have a relationship with the guys, I think that’s important that they feel that on both teams. Went on a hockey road trip earlier this year. That was so much fun. I went on the early season trip to Toronto and Boston and it was great. Great to be around the guys. At the end of the day it goes a long ways; they know that I’m behind them as well.

Q: Keeping in mind the Daniel Snyder story in Washington, where the owner’s relationship with star players has been a problem for coaches, as an owner in roughly the same age bracket as the players, is there any issue there for you?

A: The locker room is the coaches’ domain. I don’t want to interfere with that at all. Me having a relationship with some of the players on the periphery I don’t think is a problem, and if it ever was a problem I would hope that the coaches would come address it to me right away because I don’t ever want to interfere with anything that they’re trying to do.

Q: You’ve got a member of the Swedish Olympic team [Gabriel Landeskog], a member of the Russian Olympic team [Semyon Varlamov], a member of the Canadian Olympic team [Matt Duchene] and a member of the U.S. Olympic team [Paul Stastny]. Were you disappointed Erik Johnson didn’t make the U.S. team?

A: I was disappointed EJ didn’t make it. I was hoping that Jan Hejda would get a chance at the Czech Republic team. There’s so many different nationalities; it’s one of the cool things about hockey is it brings together people from all over the world. I was hoping that as many of our guys were going to get a shot as they could, but there were a few guys I was hoping were going to get included but didn’t.

Q: So let’s switch gears and talk about the Nuggets. The last time I heard you talk about the state of the team was last year when you did a series of press conferences about organizational changes and free agency, so let’s go back to that point and let me ask you first about the Andre Iguodala deal. When you look back on that, were you disappointed at the time with the outcome? Were you surprised?

A: I was more disappointed than I was surprised. We’d done our diligence throughout the year and throughout free agency. We kind of knew there was a chance that he would come back and a chance that he wouldn’t. In the transition period, Tim Connelly didn’t have to hit the ground running, he had to hit the ground in a full sprint. We were able to have good conversations with Andre and his representation. Ultimately, Andre felt it was best for him to go elsewhere. That’s really all I can say about it. He plays for another team now and we’re looking forward.

Q: So how do you feel about the moves that you made after that and the roster that you have now?

A: I feel pretty good. Andre waited several days into free agency to make his decision and he was our No. 1 priority. We didn’t have any cap space to really use. We were going to re-sign Andre with Bird rights. So there was a different evaluation of players. Looking at our current roster, even without Andre, we felt we were a playoff team. So we wanted to try and bolster our bench and also provide value signings to where we were flexible moving forward.

Q: And do you still feel that way? Do you still feel like you’re a playoff team?

A: I do. The hard part that comes with professional sports and sports in general is you can’t make an honest assessment until you’re healthy and it’s been a rough year in that regard. Obviously, without Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] and without JaVale [McGee], we don’t know really what we have. I think that our guys have done a wonderful job of stepping up to the plate without a full roster.

Q: Speaking of JaVale, I think it’s fair to say there was a widespread perception that you and the organization wanted JaVale to play more and that contributed to the trade of Kosta Koufos. Is that a fair assessment?

A: I don’t know if it’s completely a fair assessment. I think we’re always looking at ways to improve our team. Obviously, with the salary that JaVale commands you hope that you get a lot of production out of it, but we don’t ever try to dictate who plays or who doesn’t play. We want to let the coach set the rotation and if he feels that he’s going to win more games with somebody else, then by all means, we should go with somebody else. But JaVale is a talented guy and I think hopefully with more playing time he gets better, but obviously we’ll never know until he gets healthy.

Q: Do you see him as an enigma as a lot of NBA observers do?

A: He’s an interesting personality. He’s much more intelligent than a lot of people give him credit for. I’ve had the privilege of being around a lot of very intelligent people over the course of my life and sometimes the most intelligent people are the hardest ones to kind of read. And JaVale seems to be that way. I think that the next year or two or three of his career will obviously be very telling — what he wants to do and how he wants to get to the level he wants to be as a player.

Q: With respect to Gallo, there have been a lot of different estimates along the way of when he might be ready. Some of them were a lot earlier than now. Do you have any feel for when he might be back?

A: You know, obviously we want to get Gallo back as soon as we can, but with an injury like that, you never want to rush it. So Gallo is on Gallo’s time frame. He’s been working his tail off on a daily basis with [strength coach] Steve Hess, [trainer] Jim Gillen and our entire training staff. We have a physical therapist on staff now, starting this year, and I know that Gallo and some of the guys are very pleased with the exercises that he’s provided. With an ACL, you’ve just got to be careful. Derrick Rose sat out the entire year last year to make sure he was healthy. We don’t want to rush Gallo back, but obviously, he’s a huge part of our team.

Q: So no specific ETA?

A: No, I can’t give you a specific one. I would love to be able to, but I can’t because I would hate to provide the wrong information.

Q: What did you make of the last week or so, with the losing streak and the turmoil surrounding Andre Miller?

A: You know, I knew there was going to be some ups and downs, and sometimes some of that stuff just has to work itself to the surface. With ups and downs and the transition with the coaching, Andre was somebody that, he thrives in an up-and-down type of pace, but Andre is getting older and we’re kind of in a transition period where we had lost several games in a row and I think Brian was trying different things out. I respect Andre immensely and I respect Brian immensely and I think it was just one of those emotional things that gets the best of people at the time and I don’t anticipate any issues moving forward.

Q: Looking back, did you think that perhaps bringing in Nate Robinson and creating a three point guard situation might at some point have to settle out?

A: I’ll leave that up to Brian and the coaches to figure out. With Nate, I think the idea that Tim and Brian discussed was to provide some scoring punch, and obviously Nate does that here and there. It was a transition for everybody in the organization, let alone the guys that were coming in from a different team. Nate’s had his ups and downs but he’s a fiery competitor and somebody that we hope can provide some additional benefit to us down the road. One thing I thought that we lost a little bit last year was at certain times throughout the year we didn’t look as tough as we needed to be, and Nate’s a tough guy.

Q: You’re about middle of the pack offensively in terms of scoring and in terms of efficiency. Middle of the pack defensively in terms of efficiency. What do you think of the style of play at this point?

A: As far as the style’s concerned, I think we’re doing just fine. I think Brian’s going to get better over time as he continues to experiment with different things that he thinks are best for our team and best for our personnel. We started off kind of slower earlier in the year, and I think that was by design. Then I think we got into running more and more, and our pace continued to improve. With the injuries we just don’t exactly know how everything is going to shake out until we get healthy because we have some talented guys that aren’t playing right now.

I think with a new system and a fresh idea with some of the guys that are kind of entering their defining years on what’s going to happen with them and their careers, it could be all over the place. I don’t know how to exactly answer your question because we’ve done a few different things throughout the year so far. We started off slow and now we’ve kind of sped it up a little bit. We want to get out and run. We’re at the mile-high. That was one of the things that Tim and I talked about initially when I interviewed him, was we like to play fast here. We want to get out and go and take advantage of our natural resources.

Q: It looks like you’re playing about as fast as last year, but your shooting percentage is about four points below where it was last year. Do you think that’s about the people or the mix?

A: I think it’s a combination of everything. We started off 0-3. We played a really difficult game in Sacramento. It was such an emotional night for the city, that was going to be a tough one to win. And then we came back and we got thumped by Portland who, it turns out, is pretty good. And then we had to play San Antonio, who we also know is pretty good. Then we went on a little run, we won seven or eight in a row, and then we were kind of here and there, here and there, and then we lost seven or eight in a row. There’s going to be ups and downs. I think the most difficult part of sports, one is injuries and two is staying patient with the team and the people that you have. Everybody is so competitive and they want to win, but you have to have a much bigger picture in your mind over a period of years. I think we’re right about where I thought we’d be. I think we’re right where we were last year at this time, almost.

Q: I think Brian had it flipped. He said after the win over Memphis that you were right where you were a year ago after 32 games, at 15-17. I think you were 17-15 last year, and you were about to go on that run where you won 16 out of 19 or something.

A: I knew we were right around where we were. But there’s going to be ups and downs. Ultimately, I don’t look for the big swings. I look for a growth chart that has its ups and downs but is steadily improving.

Q: More than a few fans think that a bunch of these guys are pretty much your average, replacement-level NBA players. Whether it’s Hickson or Arthur or Foye or Nate — journeymen, guys who have been around. So when you talk about the people who are about to define who they’re going to be as players, who are you talking about?

A: We have several of those guys, guys in their mid-20s really starting to show if they’re going to take a leap or if they’re going to remain who they are, I think. Those are big-time growth years as a person, and you figure out who you are. I think we have several guys. You can just look at our roster and go down, look at the ages, and we have several guys that are in that time frame. And there’s a couple guys we think have a chance to be pretty doggone good and there’s a few guys we’re still waiting to see who they are and who they want to be.

Q: You don’t want to talk about specific names, I take it?

A: No, but you can look at the roster and look at the ages. We have a lot of guys that are clumped together along with one or two guys, like Randy and Nate and Andre, that are a little bit older. And then we have a couple guys that are younger. But then there’s a stack of guys that are all around the same age there, within a few years of each other.

Q: What’s fair to expect from Ty Lawson? I think there’s some frustration that he looks so good sometimes and then the rest of the time, not so good.

A: You know, Ty’s been through a lot here in Denver. He was somebody we had our sights on in the draft, we were able to get a hold of him through a trade and he’s developed here the whole way. I think Ty has unbelievable potential. I think he can be one of the best guards in the league. It’s a matter of him getting comfortable with the offense and comfortable with himself being an alpha like that. Is he a true alpha? I don’t know. Ty’s as good as he wants to be, I think. He has that type of talent.

Q: If you were talking directly to your fans and addressing the perception that you’ve taken a step back, what would you say?

A: I addressed the team earlier this year and I said, ‘Sometimes, going to a place you’re unfamiliar with can lead you to a place you’ve never been before.’ I think that’s kind of the general message that I tell myself. Sometimes you have to take a slight step back to take a bigger step forward.

With the coaching change, I’m more than happy with Brian. I think he’s doing a great job. George [Karl] did an unbelievable job when he was here. I have the utmost respect for him. I try to tell people how difficult a summer it was for me, but I don’t know if anybody really understands. I think it’s a bright future. We have a lot of very good players, we have a lot of flexibility and I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be a great thing for us moving forward. I understand the hesitation because we had such a great season last year, but I’m really excited about the future.


Patrick Roy: ‘We want to surprise the world of hockey’

Patrick Roy’s return to the NHL as Colorado’s head coach has generated plenty of hype, especially in Canada. After he answered questions posed in English following his team’s morning skate today, he answered a couple posed in French.

Still, he’s taking over the second-worst team in the league last season, so I asked him, in English, what is fair to expect from the Avalanche this season in his first year as head coach.

“We want to surprise the world of hockey,” he said. “I look at all the predictions and nobody puts us in the playoffs. But we have the right to prove people wrong, and it starts tonight.”

Brave talk is common this time of year, of course. The Avs have been full of hope before each of the past three seasons, but that didn’t stop last season from being their worst since the franchise moved to Colorado from Quebec. Only Florida registered fewer points in the standings. The Avs’ point percentage was their lowest since the 1991-92 season, when they were the Quebec Nordiques.

Nevertheless, this year’s team is stocked with a group of talented young players reminiscent of those young Nordiques. With franchise legends Roy and Joe Sakic having taken the controls — Roy on the ice and Sakic in the front office — the Avs are convinced that things are looking up.

“In this dressing room, we’re expecting nothing less than a playoff spot,” 20-year-old power forward and team captain Gabe Landeskog said when I asked about fair expectations.

“It’s going to be a tough road there because we’re in a tough division this year with the defending Stanley Cup champions and a bunch of other teams as well. So it’s going to be tough, but we feel like we have the confidence going into this season that we can make a difference and we can surprise some people.”

However it turns out competitively, the league’s realignment should provide a relief to fans, and perhaps a little juice at the gate, too. Gone is the little-lamented Northwest Division that seemed to pit Colorado against Calgary every other night. The Avs are in a new Central Division that includes the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks along with the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets.

With four players selected among the top three picks of their respective drafts — defenseman Erik Johnson (No. 1, by St. Louis, 2006), center Matt Duchene (No. 3, 2009), Landeskog (No. 2, 2011) and Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1, 2013) — the Avs have lots of skill. Whether they have the other characteristics that make up a winner is a different question.

“There’s no more excuses for being young in terms of myself and a few other guys in this room,” Duchene told me. “Once you get past your first couple of years, I think you’re well on your way to being a seasoned veteran in this league. This is my fifth year and hopefully there’s a lot more to come, but I’ve learned a lot so far and looking forward to applying that here this season.”

“We can’t just rely on our skill,” Landeskog added. “We know that we have a lot of skill, but it didn’t work last year and it didn’t work the year before, so we need to change something, obviously, and we need to pay more attention to details, pay more attention to the systems, all these kind of things Patrick’s been talking about and harping on all preseason here. What better experience can you have than with Adam Foote, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy? So we’ve got the best circumstances here to make sure we’re a playoff team and a playoff contender. We know if we can develop the skill and experience and more leadership we’ll be fine.”

Beaten down by constant criticism as the team foundered under former coach Joe Sacco, several players mentioned the upbeat approach Roy has brought to his first NHL head coaching assignment.

“He’s very positive,” Duchene said. “When we need a kick in the butt, he gives it to us, but when we’re doing things the right way and doing things well, we get praise as well. And as a team, you need that. As much as you’re being criticized, you’ve got to be built up as well. He’s done an outstanding job of that and everybody has loved that part of it so far.”

Near the end of last season, veteran goaltender J.S. Giguere ripped into unnamed teammates for being too ready for summer vacation. So I asked him where the sense of urgency missing a year ago needs to come from.

“Obviously, the coaching staff’s going to help, making sure we have urgency and putting us back in the straight direction if we wander, but most of it has to come from within,” Giguere said. “We have to have some leadership. We have to have some guys standing up to the other guys when they’re not going in the right place. I totally believe in the leadership we have in this group.”

On paper, the Avs look like they could pull off a turnaround season. Their top lines — Landeskog, Paul Stastny, Alex Tanguay; Ryan O’Reilly, Duchene, Steve Downie; Jamie McGinn, MacKinnon, P.A. Parenteau — have plenty of speed, skill and scoring ability. Stopping their opponents from scoring — the Avs gave up 152 goals in 48 games last season — is another matter.

“Defense is extremely important,” Landeskog said. “I think for us, we want to play in the offensive zone, but if we’re not good in our zone then we’re never going to be in the offensive zone. So as simple as that. We want to make sure we’re good in the defensive zone. We know we struggled a little bit with that last year, so we made some changes there and some tweaks here and there, so we’ll be better this year.”

Everybody knows the history of Hall-of-Fame players trying their hand at coaching. It’s not good. But Roy paid his dues at the junior level and his players clearly believe in him. Still, surprising the world of hockey has been easier said than done for the Avs lately.

As a player, Roy often wrote big checks with his mouth, then cashed them between the pipes. The Avs desperately hope he can do the same from behind the bench.


Ryan O’Reilly versus the Keystone Kops

Ryan O’Reilly’s gap-toothed grin made him look like a kid . . .

a) . . . in a candy store.

b) . . . on Christmas morning.

c) . . . who had just spanked an accountant in a numbers game.

d) all of the above.

Take your pick. There is no wrong answer.

“Is he the happiest man on Planet Earth currently?” Altitude TV analyst Mark Rycroft asked after O’Reilly took a minute between the first two periods of today’s game at Columbus, his first in the NHL this season, to do a quick TV interview with game analyst Peter McNab.

“It feels great,” O’Reilly said. “It’s a little quick right now. It definitely takes some adjustment.”

As an organization, the Avalanche clearly believes in accounting. Its two general managers since godfather Pierre Lacroix gave up the title — Francois Giguere and Greg Sherman — are both accountants by trade. So the team’s difficulty competing in the salary cap era is not for lack of ability to do the math.

And yet the Avs utterly misjudged the state of financial play in the O’Reilly contract dispute. They seemed to relish making a power play that gave O’Reilly two choices: sign for their number or sit out the season.

A month and a half into the season, along comes Calgary with a two-year, $10 million offer sheet. The Avs were clearly miffed that another franchise handed power back to O’Reilly. In a league where one owner awarded two 13-year contracts simultaneously, the notion that owners will do things contrary to their collective business interests in order to win is not exactly novel.

“If that’s the way they want to do their business, that’s their right,” Sherman sniffed at a rare media availability to confirm Colorado had matched Calgary’s offer.

The Avs could have signed O’Reilly for that number anytime. It was the O’Reilly camp’s proposal for a $5 million annual average that Avalanche management found so objectionable. Its surrogates in the media pointed to Matt Duchene’s two-year, $7 million deal and said paying O’Reilly more than his 2009 draft classmate would turn the team’s salary structure upside down. While it’s true that O’Reilly was the better player last season, when Duchene was hurt, it’s not likely to be true very often.

And yet, confronted by a Calgary offer sheet with terms slightly more onerous than O’Reilly had requested — the $6.5 million second-year salary makes that the qualifying offer to keep O’Reilly’s rights after next season — the Avs took only a few hours of the seven-day window to match the offer.

So the net effect of the Avs’ strategy was to drive a wedge between O’Reilly and the front office, remove him from 40 percent of the lockout-shortened season — and then give him everything he was asking for months ago.

The Avs’ only excuse for this bungle is their disappointment that the Flames would breach owner etiquette by making an offer to a restricted free agent and ruining Colorado’s financial power play. This would suggest an informal agreement among owners not to exercise their rights under the collective bargaining agreement to make such offers. That, in turn, sounds a bit like collusion among the owners.

It would behoove Avalanche management to read up on the collusion cases between baseball and its players’ union in the 1980s. Donald Fehr, then president of the Major League Baseball Players Association and now executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association, surely remembers them quite well.

During a five-minute media availability at his locker after reporting to the Avs on Saturday, O’Reilly mentioned several times how happy he was to be back on the ice and back with the fellas. He did not mention the organization.

“I was just sitting at home, got a call from an agent that an offer sheet was available,” he said. “And I wanted to play hockey. So, obviously, I signed it. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I thought it would probably take a week or so, but for me it was over quickly. I’m just so excited now to be playing hockey and be back with these guys.”

As if the episode didn’t already have a Keystone Kops feel, Chris Johnston of Rogers SportsNet reported that because O’Reilly had played two pro games in Russia after the NHL season finally began, he would be subject to waivers if any team other than Colorado signed him. In other words, had the Avs elected not to match, Calgary might have surrendered first- and third-round draft picks and then watched Columbus, the NHL’s worst team, snatch O’Reilly off the waiver wire.

Amid much behind-covering over the weekend, Calgary general manager Jay Feaster insisted the Flames had done their due diligence on the applicable provision in the new collective bargaining agreement and insisted they had a case. He also acknowledged that the club’s interpretation was “different than the NHL’s current interpretation,” meaning the doomsday scenario could very well have been the league ruling.

Evidently trying to help prevent one of its GMs from looking sillier than he already did, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly declared the question moot after the Avs matched and added the league would have nothing further to say about it.

When I asked O’Reilly about Johnston’s report, he artfully skated around the question.

“I had no idea, and in that situation, I didn’t know,” he said. “I just accepted the offer sheet. I can’t control the past. I don’t know what would have happened. But I’m just glad to be back here with these guys.”

Calgary’s decision to hit Colorado with the offer sheet the day of a game between the teams added yet another subject for the most common question of the day: “Did they do that on purpose?”

Sherman would not be specific about the source of his pique, other than the vague suggestion that making an offer to another team’s restricted free agent is bad form. When I asked coach Joe Sacco if it made the game a little strange — the Avs came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Flames 5-4 with three third-period goals — he replied carefully.

“I guess a little bit, yeah,” he said. “You look at it and they’re your opponent that night and a team that you’re battling with. I would have thought maybe that would give us a little bit extra incentive to play even harder, to play even better. But that’s business. That’s the way it goes in this league here.

“I knew the news (about the Avs matching) right before the puck dropped. Our players didn’t. They weren’t aware of that before the puck dropped. So our focus was strictly on that Calgary game. But it did seem a little odd that you were playing a team that, that day they made that offer to him and you could lose him in the next seven days. But lucky for us, he’s not. He’s here with us.”

Equally strange, it’s possible that O’Reilly and Calgary just saved Sherman’s job. Before the offer sheet, the Avs sat near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. Injuries, especially to captain Gabe Landeskog, had hurt, but so had the absence of O’Reilly, the club’s leading scorer with 55 points last season.

If the Avs miss the playoffs for a third consecutive season, a watch would commence on the status of both Sherman and Sacco, especially with Joe Sakic currently in training in the front office. The Avs cannot have missed the success that fellow Denver playing legend John Elway has enjoyed while running the Broncos. Elway had considerably more experience, having run an arena league team, but one playoff appearance in five years for the once-proud Avs might be enough to hasten Sakic’s learning curve.

Now, O’Reilly returns just as Landeskog does. With injured defensemen Erik Johnson and Ryan Wilson accompanying the team on its current trip, their return could be imminent as well. If this injection of talent allows the Avs to sneak into the playoff bracket, it might buy Sherman some more time.

The NHL’s official stats will not reflect O’Reilly’s first goal upon his return. It went into his own net in the third period at Columbus today. He was trying to cut off a pass through the crease; instead replays appeared to show that he deflected the puck past Semyon Varlamov into the Colorado net. It was the Blue Jackets’ only goal of regulation and sent the game into overtime, where they scored again and won, 2-1. McNab called it the Avs’ worst effort of the season.

Both the Avs and Flames manage to come out of the O’Reilly episode looking vaguely incompetent. The qualifying offer now required of the Avs to keep their rights to O’Reilly 16 months from now will be especially problematic because they’ll be negotiating new deals with Duchene and Landeskog at the same time.

Of course, if the Avs don’t get better in a hurry, they may be represented by new front office executives by then.