Though it was the last game of the regular season, with the Avs locked into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference and with nowhere else for them to go, Sunday offered a chance to rest players that needed a break and skate the players that needed the extra ice time. However, it is important to build confidence and momentum heading into the playoffs, and thus there was ample incentive for the Avs to skate well and perhaps even grab the win.
The Avs succeeded in building confidence and momentum while absorbing an otherwise meaningless 2-1 overtime loss. As soon as the game ended the Avalanche turned their attention to their first round playoff opponent, the San Jose Sharks.
The Avs started strong against the Kings, bringing good offensive pressure and sending good shots to the net, but all of their good shots were matched by impressive saves by Kings goaltender Erik Ersberg. At the 10:43 mark, Avs center Ryan Stoa launched a slap shot on-net from the top of the right circle. The puck bounced off of Ersberg’s chest and Stoa pushed his own rebound into the net for the first goal of the day.
The Avs defense looked very tough as they relentlessly fought to prevent the Kings from sustaining any offensive pressure. Aside from Avs goalie Craig Anderson almost accidentally scoring on his own net, there were no serious threats on the Avs side of the ice, and they went to the locker room with a first period 1-0 lead.
The second period was a defensive struggle, with neither team sustaining any attacks and neither team finding scoring opportunities. In the final five minutes of the period, the Kings were able to mount a few solid offensive rushes and launch a few good shots on net, but Anderson made one excellent save after another to protect the Avs slim 1-0 lead.
In the third period the goaltending exhibition continued as Anderson and Ersberg took turns displaying their skills by making great saves to keep the score where it was. With less than 6:00 minutes left to play the Kings brought severe offensive pressure, passed the puck around the zone, and eventually Jarret Stoll launched a rocket slap-shot from the point that flew into the lower-right corner of the net to tie it at 1-1. With just 40 seconds left, Anderson had to make a great save on a two-on-one attack to keep the score deadlocked at 1-1 at the end of regulation.
Just 1:30 into overtime, the Kings brought a wave of pressure onto the Avs side of the ice, Drew Doughty released a hard slap shot off of Anderson, and Dustin Brown knocked the puck in to give the Kings the win.
The playoff storyline continued after the game as Detroit also won—the win coming in overtime over Chicago just after the Avs left the ice—awarding the Sharks the number one seed and establishing them as the Avs’ first round opponent in the playoffs.
“We’re excited to be in the position we’re in,” said Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco. “We worked hard all season long to get ourselves here, and San Jose is obviously going to present a great challenge…It’s going to be an exciting matchup for us, and we’re looking forward to it. We had a good series against them this year, with both teams taking two games.”
“We’ve done great against [San Jose] all year,” said Anderson. “It’s a great venue to be going to with lots of energy.
“For us it’s going to be a good series and we’re looking forward to it. But the bottom line is that we’ve got to be prepared…you can’t have any lackadaisical moments.”
Veteran forward and leader Milan Hejduk also shared his thoughts, “[The Sharks] are a really good team, but I feel we matched okay against them this year. . . It should be a tight series. We are definitely not the favorites, but we’ll go out there and try our best.”
Despite the season series split between the Sharks and Avs, the teams could not be more different. The Sharks are older, bigger, and stronger, while the Avs are younger, faster, and better skaters. Fortunately the Avs have a few days to prepare for the matchup.
“We’ll take a few days off to try to get ready for San Jose,” said Hejduk. “We’ll see what’s on tape, see what their tendencies are, and watch their goaltending – the usual stuff.”
“We’re going to have to focus a lot on their big line, the Marleau and Heatley and Thornton line,” said Sacco about their playoff opponents. “That’s a key component to their offense. Guys like Pavelski and Clowe are also very dangerous, and then at the back end we’re going to have to deal with a guy like Boyle, who’s very offensive minded when he jumps up into plays.”
“We just gotta worry about playing a good defensive game and trying to win the games 1-0 or 2-1,” Anderson said. That’s playoff hockey; you might not get 5-4 scores in the playoffs because teams are playing tight defensively, and so it might be a lucky bounce [that decides games].”
The drama in San Jose is going to be at its peak for this opening round.
Last year, the Sharks’ incredibly magical regular season ended in the worst form of disappointment as they got swept in the opening round. This extra pressure could inspire the Sharks to skate with fire or squeeze them into a repeat of last year’s mistakes.
“In the past they didn’t live up to their expectations,” said Sacco, “but they may use that as motivation too. They may be challenging themselves to get out of the first round, and it’s our job to do our best to try to prevent that.”
“They’ve been a really good team for a number of years,” said Hejduk, “but they didn’t really go that far in the playoffs, so there may be some heat on them—a little pressure. Definitely more than us. We can be a much looser team and we can use it to our advantage.”
The reason the Avs should skate with loose energy is that low expectations has shadowed them all season.
Having finished last in the Western Conference last year, all pundits picked the Avalanche to repeat the disaster and to be last again this season. The Avs shocked the hockey world—and those pundits—by putting together an impressively solid turnaround year that had them in the playoff picture all season and rewarded the team with a playoff berth.
“We weren’t satisfied this time last year,” said Anderson, “and coming into this season we weren’t satisfied being picked to be last. We fought and battled our way into the playoffs, and I don’t know what people expect from us, but we expect to go out, give it our best shot, and give ourselves a chance to win every game. “
“You go back again to the start of the season where expectations weren’t high outside of the organization, and so to have 95 points this year is pretty special, especially in this conference,” said Sacco. Our guys deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve achieved this year.”
“This is a feeling I never had going to the playoffs before,” said Avs team captain Adam Foote. “In the past, we expected ourselves to go to the finals. Right now, well, we were supposed to be in last place this year, and so we’re going [into the playoffs] loose.
“With a young team, we’re going to have to make sure to understand pace, pickup, and that small things matter…it’s going to be an eye-opener for some guys at first drop of the puck. But we’re going to have fun, play loose, and we’ll see what happens.”