Chicago. Chicago. Chicago.
That’s all anyone was talking about around the Avalanche dressing room in recent weeks, with the consensus among inquisitors being that the Avs and the Blackhawks were destined to meet in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After Colorado clinched its postseason bid in late March with a win against San Jose, the only real drama, it was thought, was if the franchise’s first postseason game since 2010 was going to be in Chicago or in Denver.
Well, the game is going to be in Denver, but all that Windy City and deep dish talk was just … Wild.
The Avalanche won eight of nine games between March 25 and April 10—it earned an OT point in the one game it lost, too—and in the process made up a nine-point gap between its third-place spot in the Central Division and St. Louis’ pole position to claim its first division crown since 2003.
Left in its wake were the Blues and Blackhawks, who will now meet in the first round, while Colorado will, instead, host Minnesota, beginning with a Game 1 matchup at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night at Pepsi Center.
“It was nice that we clinched a playoff spot and then we just kept going,” center Paul Stastny said. “I don’t think we sat back. We kept trying to catch Chicago. Once we caught Chicago, we beat St. Louis. We thought maybe we’d catch St. Louis, but part of us probably didn’t think it was very high percentage, and [the Blues] kind of faltered, and we won a couple games. We just kept going for it, and we never sat back.”
That mindset and successful run resulted in today’s line of questioning after the Avs’ first postseason practice centering on the Wild, who will play beyond the regular season for the second straight year after finishing 6-1-1 in its final eight games.
An Avalanche-Chicago series likely would have stirred a bit more national interest, with the Blackhawks entering this year’s tournament as the defending champions, but that matters little to Colorado.
The Avs and Wild haven’t seen each other since Jan. 30 after the teams played their five regular-season matchups in a two-month span, starting Nov. 29. Colorado took the series 4-0-1, but all the games were close. And all the games were physical.
None of the five contests finished with more than a two-goal spread and two required a shootout, and 117 hits were unfurled between the two teams.
“It’s a team that played really well, especially down the stretch,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “You have to win big games to clinch the playoffs. I mean, at some point they were in a bit of trouble and then all of a sudden, bang, they won big games. … I have a lot of respect for them, but at the same time we are going to have to play strong if we want to beat them. This is a team that is well-coached and a team that is going to play hard. We are going to have to play our best.”
Injury concerns follow around all NHL teams this time of year, and in a year where so much has gone so right for Colorado, it hasn’t been immune to the injury bug.
Matt Duchene (knee), John Mitchell (upper body), Jan Hejda (upper body) and Cory Sarich (back) could all miss Game 1, Roy said, with Duchene almost certainly out for the series. Defenseman Tyson Barrie left the Avs’ second-to-last regular-season game on Friday in San Jose after taking a hard hit in the first period, and he didn’t skate in Sunday’s finale in Anaheim.
“We’ve been dealing with injuries all season long, just like any other team,” left-winger Gabriel Landeskog said, “and whether it’s the key player or not, it is what it is. We’ve always managed to win games whether we’ve had guys in the lineup or out of the lineup. So, it certainly doesn’t bother us.
“We never rely on one or two guys to do the work. We’ve got a deep lineup up front and everybody’s contributing. When guys are out, guys are stepping up here and there. I think that’s certainly been important and a big part of our success.”
“All along I wanted to give Ryan O’Reilly a shot at center,” Roy said. “Obviously, Ryan and Dutchy (Duchene) have played really well together. Also, the moment I put Nathan with Ryan, they did well as well. It’s something we’re going to start with. Is it going to be like this all the way? I’m not sure. It’s brings some speed in the middle, which I like, and I think it’s good to have that option for us.”
“You can just feel the extra energy that’s in this room and at practice. Everybody is so much more focused everybody’s just looking forward to Thursday and certainly we are all taking care of ourselves throughout the season, but this is the time of year that everyone is, you know, making sure you’re getting sleep, make sure you’re eating right, make sure you’re staying hydrated and all that kind of stuff that’s really going to pay off. It’s certainly exciting, you can feel the buzz in the city too.”
- Landeskog, on his excitement heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs
“The goalie that gets hottest in the playoffs is usually the one that leads them there and we feel confident with the guy that we have in our net.”
- Johnson, on what he thinks is the biggest factor for postseason success
A quick look at Avalanche playoff excitement from the land of @'s and 'Likes' and 'RTs'
Nathan Mackinnon (@Mackinnon9) April 14, 2014
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