In Patrick Roy's first season as Colorado coach, he took a team that had the worst record in the Western Conference last season and transformed it into a first-place group in 2013-14. Rookie Nathan MacKinnon was a revelation, and along with teammate Paul Stastny, a pending free agent, tied for the Stanley Cup Playoffs lead with 10 points. Franchise goaltender Semyon Varlamov is signed for the next five years, and there is a core of bright young talent.
But in a close series that ended with Nino Niederreiter's overtime goal in Game 7, a few glaring issues tipped the balance.
Why were the Avalanche eliminated by the Wild? Here are five reasons:
1. Road play
Often a 3-1 home record in a playoff series is enough to clinch a berth in the next round, but the Avalanche simply could not get the job done away from the confines of Pepsi Center. Colorado lost all three games in Minnesota, including a 5-2 defeat in Game 6.
As dynamic as its offense was at home, during the season and in the playoffs, that firepower fizzled in Minnesota. The Avalanche scored four goals in their three road playoff games, which could be partly attributed to their youth and inexperience. But that trouble on the road was a vast departure from the regular season, when they posted a 26-11-4 road mark that was the best in the League.
The Avalanche had their chances to wrap this series up a number of times, and in the end it was their inability to win on the road that hurt them.
2. Losing Barrie
Losing Tyson Barrie to a medial collateral ligament injury in his left knee in Game 3 forced the Avalanche to make some major adjustments to its lineup mid-series. Wild forward Matt Cooke received a seven-game suspension for the knee-on-knee collision that caused the injury, but Colorado struggled without its best young defenseman.
Before sustaining the injury, Barrie was emerging as a force in the playoffs. He collected two assists in his first playoff game, including setting up Stastny's overtime winner. He was lost just as he appeared to be rounding into form, and Roy wasn't able to replace his minutes and offensive contribution.
Defenseman Nick Holden helped fill the void with goals in three consecutive games, but couldn't be relied on to make the same contribution in 5-on-5 situations. Barrie should be a major part of Colorado's young core for years to come, but he was missed in the latter stages of this series.
3. Creating opportunities
Colorado continuously relied on the otherworldly natural skill of players like Stastny, MacKinnon, Ryan O'Reilly and Matt Duchene. It was a treat to watch, but for the most part that youthful energy and talent overshadowed other deficiencies in Colorado's game.
When it came to 5-on-5 play and puck possession, Colorado struggled against a responsible two-way team like Minnesota. The Avalanche ranked last in the playoffs in faceoff efficiency and shots per game. The only team with a worse shot differential than Colorado's minus-8.4 was the Tampa Bay Lightning (minus-8.5), and they were swept in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens.
Colorado's 0.81 5-on-5 goal differential ranked 11th among the League's 16 playoff teams, but that figure likely would have been lower had it not been for the offensive talent on the Avalanche roster.
4. Trouble holding a lead
The Avalanche gave up series leads of 2-0 and 3-2. But it was the inability to hold a one-goal lead that was a recurring theme that ultimately caught up with Colorado in the deciding game. In Games 1 and 5, they had a one-goal edge only to allow Minnesota to tie the game before taking the lead. Colorado still won those games in overtime, covering up a potential problem for a young squad. That glaring issue would become a huge part of Game 7.
In the winner-takes-all contest, the Avalanche blew four separate one-goal leads. Each time they went ahead, the Wild found a way to respond, and Niederreiter's overtime goal gave Minnesota the series win in a game they never led.
Clearly this series could have gone either way, but the inability to hold a lead in Game 7 will likely haunt the Avalanche for much of the summer.
"When you have more experience in the playoffs, you learn how to win those big games," Roy said after Game 7. "It's a learning process. I think next year our guys in the playoffs may be more calm in those situations."
5. Varlamov's last three games
To be fair, the Avalanche have a fantastic No. 1 goaltender in Varlamov. He earned his five-year extension and is a finalist this year for the Vezina Trophy. But he also didn't flash that Vezina-caliber form in the final three games against the Wild.
It's not accurate to pin the series loss entirely on Varlamov, but there are likely some Minnesota goals he would have liked to have back late in this series. His .875 save percentage in Games 5-7 was well below his .927 mark during the regular season, which ranked third in the NHL.
Four of Minnesota's five goals in Game 7 came on unobstructed shots at or beyond the faceoff dot, and third-period goals from Niederreiter and Jared Spurgeon each beat Varlamov in the exact same spot, high to the far side beyond his blocker. Varlamov didn't challenge and barely flinched on either goal. The same could be said on Niederreiter's series-clinching score in overtime, which beat Varlamov's glove to the short side.
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