As sports fans, we naturally want our teams to be relevant. We want them to be contenders. We want them to establish themselves as perennial playoff participants and compete for championships. We want to see them face off against, and defeat, the most capable teams their respective sports have to offer.
That’s why, as Colorado sports fans, we were thrilled to see the Avalanche qualify for the playoffs in dramatic fashion for the second consecutive season. Just like in 2018, their playoffs aspirations came down to the final week of the regular season, and just like in 2018, they finally locked down the last remaining spot by the skin of their teeth in mid-April.
Whether teeth have skin, or for that matter, whether hockey players have teeth, is not the point. The point is, we are all sheepishly smiling because the Avs are still very much alive. Let’s not even broach the topic of sheep smiles.
We were also thrilled to see the long-dormant Nuggets suddenly blooming like a hillside full of columbines en route to one of their most successful regular seasons in franchise history. Even more encouraging was the fact that the Nuggets chased the Warriors all the way to the finish line and darn near entered the playoffs as the number one seed amongst an insanely competitive crop of Western Conference teams.
I’m not exactly sure when columbines begin to bloom each spring, but I do know hope springs eternal any time your favorite team earns home court advantage for the first two rounds of the NBA playoffs.
So here we are, all riding Rocky Mountain highs (figuratively speaking) with two of our local sports franchises in the playoffs. This is all we ever ask for as sports fans. This is exactly as it should be. Our teams are still kicking. We have a puncher’s chance. We are joined in a collective state of optimistic bliss because the playoffs are seasons unto themselves – new and exciting seasons where every team starts with a clean slate and absolutely anything could happen.
But not so fast.
Before we could all say “Two Denver teams made the playoffs,” the Avs promptly dropped game one to their first-round opponents, the dreaded Calgary Flames, and the Nuggets demonstrated their lack of playoff pedigree with a heart-wrenching home loss in game one to the San Antonio Spurs.
So much for sheep smiles and columbines.
What just happened? This is not eternal hope. This is not optimistic bliss. This is not a Rocky Mountain high. This is more along the lines of perilous and painful hell-ride aboard a lead balloon. Who signed us up for this, anyway?
All the hockey pundits said this year could be much different than the first-round elimination suffered by the Avs last season. They said Nathan MacKinnon and Gabe Landeskog were finally ready to take a quantum leap forward, into the land of extended playoff runs and back to the days of Stanley Cup glory.
They said the three-headed monster consisting of MacKinnon, Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, with 88 goals and 138 assists between them, was enough to push us over the top. On paper, at least, it should be enough.
I guess this series is taking place on ice, thought, rather than on paper.
The Nuggets, in my book, are even more perplexing. After winning 34 of 41 games at the Pepsi Center during the regular season, the Nuggets handed over game one, the numerical advantage of being the home team in a long, competitive series, and a heaping dose of confidence to the opportunistic, tradition-rich Spurs, 101-96.
As strange as it might sound, though, we wouldn’t trade this for not having qualified for the playoffs, would we? This is, after all, what we play for. These are the types of challenges every team wants to face, and must face, if they are to have their names engraved on a trophy and their legacies preserved in immortality.
Nobody said it would be easy. We wanted a chance, and a chance we still have. Keep wearing those sheep smiles. Keep dreaming of columbines. And for goodness sakes, never, ever, quit on your team.
After all, these are the playoffs.