“I’m going into my ninth year next year and haven’t won s*it.”
Nathan MacKinnon’s quote won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The Colorado Avalanche – the top team in the NHL – couldn’t convert a 2-0 series lead into anything meaningful. So they’re done, finishing the abbreviated season after just two playoff rounds.
A team with Hart, Vezina and Norris Trophy finalists couldn’t make it past the third round. Wait a second… doesn’t this story sound familiar?
Colorado’s second-round exit is far from the embarrassing display put on by Tampa Bay in 2019 when the club was swept by Columbus despite the Lightning’s unbelievable season. That year, Nikita Kucherov won the Hart and the Ted Lindsay and Andrei Vasilevskiy won the Vezina, with Hedman finishing as a finalist for the Norris and coach Jon Cooper earning a runner-up spot for the Jack Adams. And they lost still lost to a team that needed help with two days to go to make it as the eighth seed.
So while Colorado’s loss to Vegas hurts, at least they lost to a team many predicted to win the Stanley Cup in the first place. But that won’t ease the pain of losing in a year where the Avalanche were the top team in the league. It’s going to hurt for a long time. GM Joe Sakic built a team that was ready to win, and they didn’t.
It’s not that there were any major deficiencies in the lineup, but more that Vegas did a good job of limiting Colorado’s top talent. MacKinnon played one of his best games of the series on Thursday with two assists, but he didn’t have a single point in the three games prior. Heading into Thursday’s game, Mikko Rantanen and Brandon Saad were the only players on the team with more than two points. In the end, Rantanen and Saad finished with three each, which was enough to lead the team in the final four outings – all losses.
Simply put, Vegas played better when it mattered. Not that Vegas should have been considered an underdog or anything: sure, Colorado had the edge in the standings, but the Golden Knights were still a contender all year long and are off to the final four for the third time in four years. It’s truly something remarkable what the Golden Knights have been able to do.
The Avalanche, on the other hand, just looked disjointed. It didn’t look like the same team that won the Presidents’ Trophy this year. But full credit to Vegas – it’s not like they struggled this year: they tied Colorado in the standings.
There’s a lot to be gained from a loss like this. The Lightning last year were able to turn a terrible 2019 playoff run into a Cup. The St. Louis Blues the year before didn’t even make the playoffs the year before they won it all. The Capitals seemed cursed before the eventual 2018 title. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins had a host of early exits after seemingly always finishing in the top two of their division before eventually winning in 2016 and 2017.
For the Avalanche, it’s been three seasons of starting off strong in the post-season before falling short in the second round. It’s quite an incredible achievement given the horrors of 2011-2017. The main core has been through it all, and it’s just a matter of time until things get better. Maybe a bit more adversity against St. Louis would have done them some good this year, but, alas.
You could tell from the post-game availability that Colorado’s players are pissed off. They expected better. They should have been better. In the end, the season is a wash, but winning the Stanley Cup is an incredible grind. One that many, many great teams never are able to achieve with the talent they have.
This off-season, the Avs will have to worry about deals to UFAs Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad and Philipp Grubauer, with a host of others needing new deals, too. The challenge here is turning a projected $19.7 million in cap room into making sure this roster can stay together – and get better – without causing too much damage. And they’ll want to do it soon: MacKinnon has another two years left on his ultra team-friendly cap hit of $6.3 million. Don’t expect him to sacrifice the big bucks again.
The Avalanche are just too good to fall short on a consistent basis. If Sakic and company can keep this unit a top-end squad, their time will come.