Think back to the beginning of the NHL season. Before an entertaining seven-game series with the Sharks, before a dominant showing to knock off the No. 1 seeded Flames, before 90 points and the second wild card spot. What were your expectations?
If you saw all of this coming back on Sept. 18, 2018, as the Avs hosted the Vegas Golden Knights in game one of the NHL preseason, congratulations! You’re probably in the minority. That doesn’t take away from the excitement of where we sit now, it just is what it is.
On the eve of the biggest game of the year, I think it’s fitting to pause and reflect on just how great this year has been.
Nathan MacKinnon continued his meteoric rise to the top of the NHL. Philipp Grubauer made the leap from serviceable backup netminder to first-tier goaltender. Cale Makar jumped straight from the college ranks into the first defensive pairing and didn’t miss a beat. Those story lines, among others, took a young, up-and-coming team from playoff hopeful to the verge of reaching the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2002.
But here’s the thing: As successful as the 2018-19 season has been to this point, it’s still not good enough.
When I watch the Avalanche on the ice, I can’t help but think their results in this series don’t match up with the talent they send out onto the ice every night. Maybe I was jaded by their performance against the Flames in the last round. Maybe I’m just missing something. Whatever the reason, I find myself disappointed that a team led by the best skater in the playoffs has never really felt like they were in control against San Jose.
Sloppy puck play and crucial mental mistakes cost the Avs both Game 3 and Game 5, then made Game 6 a white-knuckle affair when it didn’t need to be. You may say, “But Parker, the series is tied 3-3,” “San Jose is just a good team” or “it’s the Stanley Cup Playoffs, you aren’t going to win them all.” I get that.
The problem is, the struggles go deeper than just a little error here and there. The Avalanche game plan has been exposed and I’m not sure they have a backup plan. That’s an issue there’s just no excuse for.
I’m not an Avs insider and I certainly don’t run a hockey team, but I can see the team’s blueprint is directly tied to the success of Nathan MacKinnon. The Sharks can see it, too. Calgary didn’t have an answer for his dominance, but San Jose seems to have found one. Put bodies on MacKinnon shift after shift and make the rest of the lines step up and beat you. It’s fairly simple, and to this point it’s been effective.
And what have the Avalanche done in response?
Rely even further on MacKinnon to create in traffic and hope the other lines can find a cheap goal here or there. That’s not an adjustment; that’s just insanity.
I’m missing the creativity in their attacks, missing a “hit first” mindset on defense. Without those things, the Sharks are going to do tonight what they’ve done for the first six games of the series: Dictate the pace and hold the advantage.
Instead, give me more of what I saw in Game 4. Attack from multiple angles on the ice, pressure the puck early and often, and set the tone physically from the very beginning. Those are the adjustments I want to see and frankly, that’s what it will take if this team has any plans of hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup when all’s said and done.
We’ve reached the point in the season where only the best remain and the best are able to win games in multiple ways. The Sharks, Blues, Bruins and Hurricanes can do it. So far, the Avs haven’t shown me they can.
I’m hoping tonight they’ll prove me wrong.
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