The Colorado Avalanche aimed to make noise in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the team certainly did. That didn't make the final result any less disappointing.
Colorado's season came to an end Sunday night as the Nashville Predators won the first-round series 4-2, downing the young, upstart Avs 5-0 in Game 6 at Pepsi Center.
"It is tough to sum up the series right here, right now, but I felt like we made them fight for it," said Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, minutes after leaving the home ice for the last time until the fall. "I don't know if they thought that they were going to roll over us (in the first round), but I'm proud of the group we have in this dressing room."
Following their 2-1 come-from-behind win in Game 5 in Nashville, the Avs were looking to even the series and send it back to the Music City for a decisive seventh game. But, the Predators showed why they reached the Stanley Cup Final a year ago and are this season's Presidents' Trophy winners after finishing with 117 points. Nashville took advantage of some bounces and breaks early on and led 2-0 after the first period and 4-0 at the midway point of the contest.
"We looked like we ran out of gas a little bit," said Colorado head coach Jared Bednar. "I didn't mind, to be honest with you, the energy at the start of the game. We were out and on the forecheck, but we made a couple mistakes in the D-zone and it ended up in our net."
One thing the Preds excel in is protecting leads, as they went 41-4-6 during the regular season when scoring first. Once Nashville got up by a couple goals, the club hunkered down defensively in the neutral zone and in front of goaltender Pekka Rinne and didn't allow many scoring chances to get through. The Preds displayed that commitment in their first three wins of the best-of-seven series and again on Sunday.
"They came out strong. Just a couple bad bounces and a couple bad decisions, and we weren't as sharp as we needed to be," Landeskog said. "We were in a hole, 2-0… They are too good of a team to let you back into the game. It's not the way you want to finish, that's for sure."
A 1-versus-8 matchup, the series was close throughout and had a couple breaks gone Colorado's way the stage could have been set for a first-round upset. The Avalanche presented a tough challenge, and the Predators were aware it wasn't going to be easy
"We never tried to take them lightly," said Nashville head coach Peter Laviolette. "We knew that they had good players. They were young, they were fast, they had nothing to lose, and that makes them very dangerous."
Video: Landeskog after falling to the Preds
The series went the longest among the four in the Western Conference, as the Avs were the only team to pick up two victories in a losing effort.
The Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings were battling with Colorado in the final weeks of the season for the conference's final playoff spots, but they were swept in four games by the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, respectively. The Central-Division rival Minnesota Wild didn't fare much better, dropping its matchup with the Winnipeg Jets in five games.
"I think we earned some," said Bednar on if his squad got the respect it deserved in Round 1. "They earned the series win, but I think part of the process for our guys is knowing that we earned a little bit, and if you want to earn more then you have to find a way to win. That will be part of what we'll remember and drawback on for next year. I think our guys can hold their heads up with the season that they had, and the playoff series that they had against a real good team."
Video: Bednar after the first-round series loss to Nashville
The postseason was the culmination of a 12-month turnaround for the Avalanche. At this time last season, Colorado was heading into the offseason after finishing last in the league and having one of the toughest campaigns in franchise history.
The Avs committed to speed and youth in the summer and went on to dress 11 different rookies in 2017-18. Colorado's rookie class finished with 419 games played--the most since the team moved to Denver in 1995 and the highest total in the NHL this year--and 122 points (49 goals and 73 assists), tied for fourth among league freshmen.
Colorado was one of the youngest squads throughout the season, and the club ended the campaign and began the postseason as the youngest at 25.8 years of age.
"We have a really young group, an inexperienced group, so I'm really proud of what we have been able to accomplish and obviously take some major strides forward," said Landeskog, who isn't much older but is one of the veterans of the team at 25 years old.
There were certainly bumps along Colorado's journey with a youthful squad gaining experience and knowledge every game.
The team had a 1-4-0 homestand at the end of November and early December that left it with a 12-12-2 record, a possible fork in its season heading into a tough east coast road trip. That could have sidetracked the Avs' postseason aspirations, but it didn't. They went 15-3-1 over their next 19 contest and along the way had a 10-game winning streak--the second longest in franchise history.
"No one gave us a shot at the start of the year," said Colorado defenseman and alternate captain Erik Johnson, who missed the playoff series versus Nashville after fracturing his patella (kneecap) on March 28 against the Philadelphia Flyers. "Outside this locker room no one believed in us, but we believed in ourselves and thought we could get the job done and make the playoffs."
The Avalanche battled for positioning in the final months and stayed within striking distance of the NHL's second season. More teams faded out of playoff contention each day, but Colorado held its spot in the standings.
It came down to the regular-season finale against the St. Louis Blues on April 7, with the Avs needing to win in regulation to secure the franchise's 23rd trip to the postseason. Colorado had one of its best games of the year in a 5-2 rout at home and secured the last playoff spot in the West.
"Definitely a lot of people didn't see us in this position coming into the season, half of the season," said Nathan MacKinnon, one of the club's alternate captains that put together a career year with 39 goals and 97 points. "You know, everybody thought we weren't going to make it, thought we would be the odd-team out in the west. Obviously, it's nice to prove people wrong and have a good young team going forward."
Video: MacKinnon after the Avs loss to the Preds
The Avalanche finished the regular season with a 43-30-9 record and 95 points, a year after going 22-56-4 (48 points). The 47-point turnaround is the fourth-highest, year-to-year improvement in NHL history and the biggest increase since the Pittsburgh Penguins also had a 47-point jump from 2005-06 (58 points) to 2006-07 (105 points).
"I'm proud of this team. What they accomplished, how hard they worked all year, how coachable they were," said Bednar. "It's a great group, it's a fun group to coach. That's what I'll take out of it. I thought they were respectful, responsive, hard-working group, real close-knit group from day one, really. Great leadership.
"It was a good season, it was a fun season. It was a lot of fun, especially for a lot of our guys that went through probably their worst season, myself included, last year. To respond and have a season like this, it was fun and it was a good time."
The narrative of the Avalanche's rise to success after finishing in last place isn't lost on the players.
"I'm sure it's a feel good story for everybody from where we were 12 months ago to here, and to a certain extent it is to this group as well and the guys that were here--but you always want more," Landeskog said. "Unless you win the last game of the season in June, I don't think you're ever going to be satisfied."
MacKinnon reiterated his captain's statement of the club wanting more.
"Good bounce-back year," said MacKinnon. "I mean, it's a cool story that we went [from] last to playoffs, but we're trying to win a Cup… There's some positives. We have a young team going forward. I thought we showed a lot of fight this season, a lot of adversity that we overcame. Hopefully we can use some of that next season."
There is a lot the Avs can be proud of this season, and the success they had might be the foundation for future playoff runs that go deeper into spring in the coming years.
Now, the ensuing weeks will serve as a time of reflection for the players, coaches and management before they get back to the grind of preparing the 2018-19 campaign--one that will have higher hopes attached to it.
Reaching the playoffs and taking the Presidents' Trophy winners to six games raises expectations for next year, and the Avalanche players welcome the challenge.
"I hope we do some damage next season," MacKinnon said. "Obviously there is going to be higher expectations for our team. Next season will be playoffs or failure. We'll have to take that in stride and use some things we learned this season."