Playoff hockey is back in Denver.
With a 5–2 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night, the Colorado Avalanche punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2014. The Avs will face the Nashville Predators—the best team in the Western Conference—in the first round of the playoffs, tentatively scheduled to begin Thursday, April 12 in Nashville. The Predators beat the Avs four times during the regular season and are heavily favored to win the series.
But this is a Colorado team that knows a few things about defying expectations.
Colorado was the worst team in the NHL last season. The Avs’ record was 22-56-4, which actually made them one of the worst teams in the history of the NHL. It was a season in which coach Jared Bednar watched opponents outscore his team by 111 goals, which was exactly 50 goals more than the league’s second-worst team.
“I’m really proud of this team,” Bednar said after Saturday’s win. “You go through what [we] went through last year and there are doubters along the way and even, at times, you doubt yourself…You have to respond, and we did that.” Many thought the Avs needed to make big changes to its roster for the 2017–18 season, but General Manager Joe Sakic—an Avalanche legend in his own right—disagreed. He stuck with Bednar and kept most of the same players on this year’s roster.
After going 43-30-9 this season, the initial return looks promising.
This team is one of the youngest in an NHL that’s turning increasingly to youth and speed as elements of a winning formula. It boasts one of the leading Hart Trophy (awarded to the league’s most valuable player) candidates in Nathan MacKinnon, an offense that is among the top 10 in the NHL when it comes to scoring, and a penalty kill that’s one of the best in the league. The team has inspired article, after article after article in which hockey writers try to pin down precisely how Colorado managed to right the ship. The truth is, the Avs’ turnaround in 2018 baffled the hockey world.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) April 8, 2018
“We were surprised ourselves. After a 48-point season [last year], we weren’t really expecting to make the playoffs to be honest,” MacKinnon said after clinching the playoff berth. “[Winning this game] is pure joy. We worked so hard for this…hopefully the journey’s not going to be over, but we need to be very proud of ourselves.”
To defenseman Tyson Barrie, the mindset at the beginning of this season was geared toward building a better foundation and improving, rather than winning a championship. “You’d be lying if you said the expectation [this season] was to win a Stanley Cup,” Barrie said. But that sentiment changed once the new year rolled around. Colorado went on a 10-game winning streak—which meant they gained a massive 20 points in the standings—to start off 2018.
“We beat a lot of good teams over that stretch, and I think everybody realized that we’ve got something special here,” team captain and left wing Gabriel Landeskog said. “We realized, too, that being in the mix and being close wasn’t good enough. The goal is to win the Cup.”
With three weeks left in the regular season, the team was in good shape. It looked as though the Avs were poised to not only make the playoffs, but to be something of a dark horse to bring home a championship. But after losing six of its final 10 games, made more difficult due to season-ending injuries to both starting goalie Semyon Varlamov and top-line defenseman Erik Johnson, Colorado needed to win its final tilt against St. Louis. And they did. The Avalanche delivered a thrilling win in front of a raucous home crowd at the Pepsi Center Saturday night.
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) April 8, 2018
How much any of this matters if the team fails to win the Cup may be different for each fan. But this team added nearly 100 goals to its previous season total and shored up its defensive struggles. The talent is there on offense, defense, and (if Varlamov can stay healthy) between the pipes. That’s why we can look forward to playoff hockey returning to the Pepsi Center—something that should be more common in the years to come.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated the Predators beat the Avalanche three times during the regular season. The Predators won all four regular season games. 5280 regrets the error.