For a young pro hockey player hoping to break into the big leagues someday, getting experience in a playoff atmosphere can be invaluable.
That is what three Colorado Avalanche prospects are receiving just up the road from the NHL club in Loveland.
Defensemen Sergei Boikov and Mason Geertsen and forward Julien Nantel are playing with the Avalanche's ECHL affiliate, the Colorado Eagles, based 50 miles north of Denver. The trio played key roles in the Eagles' first-round series win over the Idaho Steelheads, which included Colorado winning four in a row after dropping Game 1 at home.
Playing meaningful games in April and May can be significant in a player's development, no matter what league it is in.
"I think it's huge. During the season, it's kind of a different mentality, but playoff time it becomes do or die every night," Geertsen said. "You definitely have the mentality of where if you don't have a good shift, it could cost you the whole season. So, it's definitely a good way to play."
Video: Geertsen on his 2016-17 season
The Eagles picked up a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 2 on April 15 and used that momentum to their advantage when the series moved to Boise for the following three contests last week.
Leading the charge in the series shift was Nantel, who spent most of the season in the American Hockey League with the San Antonio Rampage but did see five games of action in the ECHL with Colorado. The Avalanche's seventh-round pick in the 2014 draft scored a goal in each game in Idaho.
"Personally, [the Avs] want me to get experience and to be a good defensive player," Nantel said of being in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. "Be good defensively in my zone, take some faceoffs. Get some advice from the coach here."
Nantel is in his first pro season after spending the previous three years in the QMJHL with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, winning a league championship in 2016 and a spot in the Memorial Cup.
He finished his first campaign in San Antonio with eight points (five goals and three assists) and added two tallies during his five-game stint with the Eagles in March.
"A lot of learning," Nantel noted of his first year in the pro ranks. "At the start, I was a little bit on my heels. I wasn't sure what to do and stuff. The coaches, the teammates, they were good with me. I had a good finish to the season."
Video: Julien Nantel on his 2016-17 season
Like Nantel, Boikov is also in his first pro season, though he did have a taste of minor-league action at the end of last year when he played in four contests while on an amateur tryout with the Rampage. The blueliner went on to record three goals, 13 assists, 69 penalty minutes and four power-play points in 63 outings this year with San Antonio.
"I didn't know how hard it was going to be, how physical the game was going to be," said Boikov, the Avs' sixth-round pick from 2015." I just tried to prepare myself, and I think I did good."
Like the rest of the Avalanche prospects with the Eagles, Boikov is viewing this opportunity in northern Colorado as a chance to prepare himself for the AHL, and hopefully the NHL, in 2017-18.
"I just want to get more experience, help myself," he said. "Getting better, stronger and prepare to go up to San Antonio or the Avalanche."
Colorado's next test in the ECHL postseason will be the defending league champion Allen Americans, who won their first-round series against the Utah Grizzlies in five contests.
The Eagles and Americans battled for the top spot in the Mountain Division all season, but the club from the Dallas suburb gained the edge in the final weeks by winning its final eight games to finish with two more victories and five more points than Colorado.
Video: Sergei Boikov on his first pro season
As the Eagles go deeper into the postseason, the experience that Geertsen has should be beneficial for the squad. The D-man played in 21 ECHL playoff contests for the Fort Wayne Komets last season and helped the squad to the Western Conference Finals, where they ultimately fell to the Americans.
A big rear guard at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds that also carries a heavy shot, Geertsen noted he was more confident with the puck during his second pro season, which featured 36 games with the Rampage after he missed the start of the campaign with a hand injury.
"I think my first year coming in, I was a little nervous to make any plays or make mistakes, stuff like that," Geertsen said. "Now this year, I'm getting more comfortable. I want to make plays, get in the rush and try and score--make some offense."
For the Avalanche's fourth-round selection in 2013 and the rest of the team's prospects, the ultimate goal is to be playing down I-25 at Pepsi Center one day.
The Avs made 20 call-ups among 12 different players last season from San Antonio, including six that made their debuts in the NHL. That gives many members in the team's system assurance that they're close to the show.
"When you see somebody get called up it's like, 'We actually have a chance. They gave us an opportunity. Everybody has a chance here. As long as you play good and people notice you, you'll get called up eventually.' So, it's definitely nice to see," said Geertsen. "Like even Duncan [Siemens] at the end of the season or [Anton Lindholm], those guys getting called up, it was cool to see that because Duncan plays similar to me. He gets called up, it gives me a chance, too."
That's all any player really wants. A chance to prove themselves