Nobody can accuse the Colorado Avalanche of not fighting to the end in their first round series against the San Jose Sharks. In fact, with their backs against the wall and facing elimination, the Avalanche skated with fire throughout all of Game 6 and even grabbed a 2-1 lead with 12 minutes left to play in regulation.
However, after Dan Boyle scored on a slap shot from the point to tie the game, the series and the season caved in on the Avs.
In a flash, the Sharks’ Joe Pavelski scored on a two on one attack wrist shot to put the Sharks ahead. Pavelski’s goal proved to be the game winner, advancing the Sharks to the next round of the playoffs and ending an otherwise successful—and overachieving—Avalanche season.
“[Pavelski] made a perfect shot,” said Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson. “Our guy [Foote] was trying to pay the price, trying to block the shot, and it got through him and by me, and that was the game.”
“We made a few adjustments,” said Avs team captain Adam Foote. “It seemed like we had momentum and we just pressured a little bit, and we caught an odd-man rush there and it went through my block, and that was the game. But they’ll tell you, they had their hands full, and there’s a bright future here.”
As was the pattern of the series, San Jose started the game by bringing a wave of pressure onto the Avs side of the ice. It didn’t take long for the Sharks to bite, as just 47 seconds into the game Pavelski scored on a nice wraparound goal, giving the Sharks an early 1 zip lead.
For the rest of the period the action went up and down the ice. The Avs were able to apply pressure, set up plays, pass the puck around the zone, and launch good shots—but they were unable to score, and despite a very evenly matched first period, the Avs went to the locker room down 1-0.
Six minutes into the second period, the Avs unloaded a heavy surge of pressure and Marek Svatos displayed excellent skating moves as he brought the puck up the left board, swiftly cut the puck through to the center and backhanded it into the net to tie it. At this the Denver crowd released their collective nerves with a much-needed explosion of deafening cheers.
With the game tied, the intensity on the ice picked up ten-fold. Both teams began skating with physical aggression and urgent passion, with both teams landing good pummeling hits on each other. The intensified physical play eventually led to a series of penalties and a power play opportunity for each club, but neither could capitalize on the advantage.
The third period began with more back-and-forth, see-saw hockey. But five minutes into the period the Avs unleashed an offensive attack, and from the far edge of the right circle, Paul Stastny launched a slap shot off of Sharks’ goalie Evgeni Nabokov, and an alert Brandon Yip knocked the rebound into the back of the net to give the Avs a 2-1 lead.
The Sharks responded immediately by bringing a rush of pressure into Avalanche territory, and passes around the zone positioned Dan Boyle to unleash a rocket slap shot that zipped through traffic and flew by Anderson to tie to game at 2-2.
At the 10 minute mark, the Sharks went on a two on one attack, and Pavelski scored on a wrist shot to give the Sharks the lead.
With a late lead, the Sharks smelled blood, and sensing the victory they packed their defense and refused to allow the Avs to pass into their zone. Even in desperation mode, and even with a pulled goalie, the Avs were unable to generate an attack and after two quick empty net goals made it 5-2 the Sharks left the ice to celebrate their series victory and the Avs went to clean out their lockers.
“I think we’re a little bit shocked right now,” said Duchene, “We kind of figured we had to hold on to that lead, and then two bang-bang plays for them ended up in the back of our net. It wasn’t for lack of effort; I think tonight was maybe our best game of the series. We really pushed the pace, we made plays, and we didn’t do that for the whole series. We had patience with the puck to make plays, and it’s too bad we didn’t figure that out a little earlier, but hindsight’s always 20/20 and I think we should be proud of what we did.”
“We played one of the toughest teams in the west,” said Avs captain Adam Foote. “They’ve lost a lot of playoff series, they’ve learned the hard way. We’ve got 14 young guys that played their first playoff game this year. I think something special’s in here because no one quit. You can see that in this game, no one quit.
“Unfortunately you can’t win every year, and you probably have more losing rounds in the playoffs than you do winning rounds, and that’s every single player that’s ever played the game, and it’s never fun.”
“We had more expectations than that,” said Stastny. “We didn’t want to just make the playoffs and be happy with that, we wanted to keep going and that’s why we’re disappointed right now, so we got some experience and hopefully we’ll have learned things from this playoff exit.”
Reasons the Avs Lost the Series
Neutral zone play: In Game 1—the only convincing victory for the Avs during the six-game series—the Avs dominated the neutral zone. Since then, the Sharks made the appropriate adjustments and usurped the neutral zone for themselves, and with their neutral zone success they were able to dominate the action.
“In game 1, when we didn’t perform as well,” said Sharks head coach Todd McClellan. “We didn’t manage the neutral zone, so that was obviously the talk after Game 1. But I thought we made some adjustments and did a much better job of coming through and having the opportunity to play in their end.”
Offense: The young Avs lacked the offensive muscle that was needed to match that of the veteran Sharks. In fact, during a three game stretch (Games 3-5), the Avs found themselves hopelessly unable to generate any offensive pressure and only managed to score 2 goals during that span.
In fairness to the Avs, they were seriously hindered by injuries to offensive threats Peter Mueller and Milan Hejduk. Hejduk, in addition to being a leading scorer for the Avs, was also a crucial veteran leader on an offense that’s otherwise full of youngsters, and his absence was deeply felt since his Game 3 departure.
“Not once did we ever mention our injuries,” said Avs head coach Joe Sacco. “That really added to make things difficult, that really effected us throughout much of the series.”
Smokin’ Joe Pavelski: Pavelski’s skates were on fire all series, as exemplified by his tallying 8 points in 6 games and scoring two game-winning goals.
“Joe played great, but I thought that whole line played great,” said Sacco. “When you lose a series, someone’s going to beat you, and that line is very opportunistic, they played well. It’s a good mix with [Joe], Clowe, and Setoguchi; they made the difference in the series.”
Despite the series loss, the Avs—who were picked by just about all hockey pundits to finish dead last in the West—greatly exceeded expectations just by putting together a successful, winning season to make the playoffs.
“From day one in training camp we tried to recreate the identity of the Avalanche as a winning organization as far as how we wanted to play and how we wanted to be perceived,” said Sacco. “We wanted to do it as quickly as possible…we thought we could turn things around quickly, and I think we did that. I think that we’ve gotten back on track, we’ve established the type of team we want to be and how we want to play.”
“I think the whole season, no one had us there [in the playoffs],” said Foote. “If you’re an outsider looking in why would you with the youth that we had and the movement we had? We used that as motivation, and a lot of good things happened this year, from goaltending to young centermen and young defensemen coming in, and there’ a real bright future here.”
If there’s any consolation for Avs fans, it’s that these kids are going nowhere but up. Young skaters like Duchene, O’Reilly, Stewart, Yip, Galiardi, and Cumiskey will continue to get bigger, stronger, faster, and smarter as they grow and mature as skaters together.
The Avs have established themselves as a competitive team—and perhaps a consistently winning team—for years to come.
“We have a lot of young players, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Sacco. “We’re gonna be a team that’s young and full of energy, and there’s a lot of upside here.”
“I think everyone here should be really excited about what’s coming up,” said Duchene. “ You look at teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago—the powerhouses of the league now—some guys didn’t make the playoffs in their first year, despite all the expectations, and they got better and better and now they’re the top teams in the league, and I think that’s the path we’re going to be on.”
Another positive aspect of the season is that the Avs found a solid, reliable goaltender in Craig Anderson, who was the team’s MVP all season and shined bright when it mattered most—in the playoffs.
“[Anderson’s] outstanding, he’s been outstanding all season long,” said Sacco. “He’s the backbone of our team, no question about that, he set the tone for our team.”
“You earn everything you get,” said Anderson. “Coming in here I’m sure to a lot of people I was an unknown. Playing in the East last year, no one knew anything about me, but it was an opportunity for me to come in and play and earn the ice time…sometimes you just need an opportunity, and it’s what you do with the opportunity, because sometimes you only get one opportunity. For me I was fortunate enough to get a couple opportunities, and I learned how to make the most of it.
“We got a long way to go,” Anderson added about the Avs future. “We’ve grown a lot this year, but we’ve got a lot of growing up to do, and obviously we have some great leadership supporting the guys along, and it’s going to be fun to see.
“We have a great group of guys, we’re like a family in here. Between our leadership with Foote, Hejduk, and Tucker—all our older guys—they really were the glue that held the young guys together,” Anderson added in his season wrap up and view of the future. “Then obviously the energy of our young guys, the opportunity they got, they made the most of their opportunity…the key is just to stay like a family, staying positive, staying personal, and going forward; that’s what creates winning teams, a family like that.”
“There’s something special here,” concluded Foote. “To push that hard at a young age, there’s a lot of grit in here, and that’s the special part about this group and it’s going to be fun for the fans to watch for the next few years.”