Last season, the Colorado Avalanche demonstrated a never-say-die disposition in the playoffs before finally falling to the heavily-favored Nashville Predators. Even though the Predators prevailed, the fast-paced, hard-hitting series took a huge toll and left them in no shape to complete what was expected to be a prolonged run through the playoffs.
Thursday night, needing just one point to clinch a second consecutive berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Avalanche again showed the resiliency and moxie of a veteran team in overcoming an early deficit at home against the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets came to the Pepsi Center determined to thrive in the role of a spoiler and quickly put the Avalanche in a 2-0 hole with a pair of first period goals. The Avalanche promptly clamped down defensively to slow Winnipeg’s momentum, then got a goal from Tyson Barrie to pull within one in the second period. With just 1:26 remaining in the final period, Carl Soderberg smashed a shot into the Winnipeg net to tie the contest at 2-2.
The 2-2 deadlock held through regulation and assured the Avalanche of the one point they needed to reach the post-season. In overtime, emotionally charged by the reality that they were officially part of the post-season party, defenseman Erik Johnson put an amazing move on the Winnipeg goalie and sent everyone home happy with an exhilarating 3-2 victory.
With established superstar Nathan MacKinnon (38 goals, 53 assists) leading the way, joined by linemates Gabe Landeskog (24 goals, 32 assists) and Mikko Rantanen (26 goals, 53 assists), the Avalanche have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with any NHL team on any given day. Couple that with the inspired play of goalie Philipp Grubauer, who garnered 34 saves in the win over Winnipeg, and Colorado seems to have all the necessary tools to compete in the difficult days and weeks ahead.
The pairings hardly matter in the NHL playoffs, as there are no easy paths in the quest for Lord Stanley’s giant silver cup. The road will be bumpy, blood will be spilled, and countless bruises sustained along the way. The playoff journey will feature a gauntlet of one brutally intimidating destination after another, and there are no short cuts or easy outs.
Let’s get behind our Avalanche as they face the daunting task of survival in an icy hell that leads to immortality for one team, and one team only.
What a season. The Denver Nuggets, without receiving their due credit nationally, and under the radar even within the confines of their own home city, have turned in a regular season performance for the ages.
With an overall record of 52-26, and a glittering home record of 32-7, Denver has already recorded one of the top three most-productive seasons in franchise history with four games still remaining on the regular season schedule.
They have chased a legendary Golden State team all season, pulling to as little as a half-game behind within the last two weeks. They have sent visiting teams home with their tails between their legs with stunning regularity throughout the season. They have proven to be among the NBA’s elite teams both offensively and defensively. The Nuggets have exceeded the wildest expectations of even their most optimistic fans, and have done so with a quiet air of confidence that is uncommon in a young, upcoming team.
It was obvious something special was in the air when the Celtics left town early in the season complaining that the Nuggets had unfairly run up the score on them in a lopsided win at the Pepsi Center. And, speaking of special, Nikola Jokic has averaged 21.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game this season.
Jokic is not alone. Teammate Jamal Murray has hit his stride in his third season as a pro, averaging 18.1 points per game. As a team, seven players have averaged more than 10 points per game, making them one of the most balanced offenses in the NBA.
The Nuggets are the sixth-best defensive team in the NBA, and score 110.8 points per game. That balance has proven to be a winning combination under the watchful eye of head coach Mike Malone, now in his fourth season in that capacity.
San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich, widely viewed as the best and brightest among NBA coaches, recently commented that he believed Malone should be considered for Coach of the Year honors. Popovich added that Malone has demonstrated an ability to be hard on his players while still maintaining the respect and admiration of his team, which is the delicate balance every head coach in any sport aspires to achieve.
Ironically, the Nuggests will likely be paired against either Popovich’s Spurs, or the Oklahoma City Thunder in the opening round of the NBA playoffs. In either case, the Nuggets would be the clear favorite to advance.
If you are not a huge basketball fan, or you have not really focused on the Nuggets this season, it is never too late to start. This young but talented team is worth checking out. And by the looks of it, they just might be playing throughout the month of May.