The Avs players admitted that the past week has been tough on them, getting psyched up and ready to play three games that were pretty much meaningless after the club was eliminated from playoff contention last Saturday, but they kept fighting and now head into the offseason on a high note.
Colorado closed out its year by defeating three playoff-bound clubs during its final homestand, showing the fans that it was going to play hard until the final buzzer sounded. That was especially the case on Saturday, as Jarome Iginla scored the game-winning tally with 34 seconds remaining in regulation to give the Avalanche a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the season finale.
Iginla scored twice against Chicago and finished the season with a team-high 29 goals. He nearly got the 30-marker as well, but Matt Duchene's centering pass to him was blocked during an Avs rush toward an empty net in the closing seconds. If Iginla scored the 30th, it would have marked the 13th season he had reached the milestone.
"It was close. Dutch made a great try there. It was an empty net there. I think [Blackhawks defenseman Brent] Seabrook dove and was able to block that," Iginla said. "Oh well. I've been fortunate to have good opportunities here again and playing with good players."
While fully knowing its season wouldn't extend past Saturday, the Avalanche defeated the division rivals Nashville, Winnipeg and Chicago in the past five days to finish the year with pride.
“These three games at home, we wanted to finish strong," Iginla said. "It’s a tough feeling right now for all of us in this organization and the fans, but at the same time, we feel like during the year we’ve grown in some areas and have learned some things. We are getting better as a team so we wanted to finish playing the right way."
Said Duchene: "We played the last few games like we were going to the playoffs. It just shows the group that we have in here and how focused we are and how we know we can be a good team. That is what we're taking into the summer."
The Avs finish as winners of four of their last five and went 17-9-1 in their last 27 games.
Playing in the toughest division in the league—and maybe in all professional sports—the Avalanche's late-season push made the final months interesting, but in the end, the tough start made the deficit it faced just too tall to climb.
"I think it is always going to be a bit disappointing when you don’t get into the playoffs, but for the most part, after the All-Star break, we really played well," said alternate captain Cody McLeod. "If you look at our record, it's pretty [good]. Just had a tough start and didn't get the wins that we needed at the start of the season."
As the team goes into what will surely be a long five months full of reflection and what-ifs, the Avalanche can at least know it competed until the very end.
"Absolutely the last stretch, we're proud of the guys. I'm proud of the guys, the way the guys worked throughout the season," said captain Gabriel Landeskog of his teammates. "No one ever complained. No one ever stopped working. That is something that we talked about. We wanted to be that team that squeezed into the playoffs, but ultimately our terrible start hurt us. No doubt about it.
"Proud of the guys. This week has been hard, knowing that we are out of it, three good teams coming in. Certainly we finished off the right way, and we finished the right way knowing we didn't quit."
Colorado ends the year with 90 points, the seventh Central Division team to hit that mark. For the second year in a row, five clubs from the Avs' division made the postseason as Minnesota and Winnipeg earned wild card bids after totaling 100 and 99 points, respectively.
"You're looking at this year, if you have the same record as Minnesota and Winnipeg, you needed 100 points to make the playoffs," said head coach Patrick Roy after his team's win. "We finished dead last in our division and we have 90 points. Ninety points start to be a good year."
While no one on the team is happy about not beginning preparation for a postseason series on Sunday, the Avs do view this season as part of the process and that they will be better in the future because of the experience and adversity they faced.
The team pretty much played playoff-type hockey for the last four months and had to do it with a roster that looked a lot different than the one general manager Joe Sakic put together in the offseason. The team had its worst injury year ever as it set a franchise record for man-games lost with 495, the second most in the league behind the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Defenseman Erik Johnson, who was having a career season before hurting his knee, missed the final 35 games. Forward Nathan MacKinnon, who was beginning to play his best hockey of the season, broke his foot and was out for the last 18 contests during the club's playoff push. Jamie McGinn missed the last 63 games because of a bad back, a lingering issue for the past few years. Ryan Wilson didn't play in the final 75 games because of shoulder surgery. Patrick Bordeleau only skated in one contest after missing the first half with a back injury and the second half with a broken kneecap, and 2014 free-agent signee Jesse Winchester didn't play at all as he was dealing with post-concussion symptoms from a head injury suffered in the preseason.
On the ice, it also seemed like bounces that went the Avs' way last season, didn't this year.
"We had a lot of adversity this year," Duchene said. "There were a lot of times where you're like, 'Wow, maybe it's not meant to be.' You just think that to yourself. We played the same as we did last year, do the same things but it just doesn't pay off. We learned a lot, and it's a great learning experience."
The biggest thing the players have taken away from this year has been the importance of the start. Colorado put itself behind the eight ball with a 4-8-5 record in its first 17 games, and had an uphill battle for the next five months.
The Avs showed their mettle to get back into the playoff race and were in the hunt until the final week. That strong play during the second half of the season should help the club going into the 2015-16 campaign, according to Roy.
"We should be confident going into the training camp," Roy said. "I think we should be confident, but I think we should also be aware of our start. Certainly believe that we'll all learn from it. I think it makes us a better team. I think it makes me a better coach, and I think it makes our players better players. I'm sure we'll learn from it, and I'm sure it will help us along the way."
As the Avalanche players reflect on the past 82 games and look ahead to next season, it's visible that the team's craving for wins and success hasn't changed. Their goal remains the same: to win that final game in June before raising up and kissing the most recognizable trophy in pro sports.
"I honestly believe we are closer to a Stanley Cup now then we were last year," Duchene said. "We're learning all the time about how to win, and we're going to be better from this season, I guarantee it. Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can jump forward."
Roy's desire for a title hasn't changed as well.
"I've said many times, I'm here to win the Stanley Cup," Roy stated in his final postgame news conference of 2014-15. "I'm here to win and make the playoffs in order to win the Stanley Cup. Obviously, it is a disappointment. We're all disappointed with our situation, but at the same time I would like to think that we'll benefit from it."
The book on the "Avs New Age" has yet to be finished. It's only just begun.
"Obviously, it is kind of chapter 2 here of the new era," Duchene said after the final horn sounded and the players left the ice of Pepsi Center. "It wasn't as nice as chapter 1, but we're going to make chapter 3 really good."
SIEMENS' NHL DEBUT
It seemed like it took forever but Duncan Siemens, Colorado's 2011 first-round draft selection, finally made his NHL debut on Saturday night.
|Duncan Siemens |
After being selected No. 11 overall—nine slots behind Gabriel Landeskog—Siemens went on to spend the next two seasons with his junior club, the Saskatoon Blades, before turning pro. He has been limited to 97 games with the Lake Erie Monsters the past two years because of injuries.
The Edmonton, Alberta native was recalled from Lake Erie late Friday after Brad Stuart suffered a leg injury in the first period of the Avs' contest on Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets. Stuart missed the remainder of that game and the season finale against the Blackhawks.
Siemens knew he had an important job in his first game, but he also wanted to make sure he enjoyed the moment.
"It's a pretty cool feeling," Siemens said after morning skate. "Taking a look around, knowing tonight is going to be the night that I dreamed of since I was three years old. It's all about taking it in and focusing on what I have to do."
He spent most of the game paired on defense with Tyson Barrie, and finished with two hits in 14:00 of ice time.
ARMY REACHES MILESTONE
Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Tim Army reached his own personal milestone from behind the bench on Saturday as he coached his 1,000th NHL contest.
|Tim Army |
Army is in his fourth season on the Avalanche coaching staff and the third as the team's assistant coach. He joined the organization for the 2012-13 campaign as the assistant coach/video before being promoted to his current position.
Overall, the 2014-15 campaign marked Army's 10th season in the NHL as he's also spent time with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (1993-94 to 1996-97) and the Washington Capitals (1997-98 to 2001-02).
Prior to joining the Avalanche, Army spent six seasons as the head coach of his alma mater, Providence College. He was hired by Providence after serving as head coach of the Portland Pirates of the AHL for three years from 2002-03 to 2004-05.
His coaching career also includes serving as an assistant for the U.S. National Team at three world championships (1994, 1996, 2013) and the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. He helped Team USA capture the bronze medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship in Finland and Sweden.
Army also has previous ties to Denver as he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the ninth round (171st overall) of the 1981 NHL Entry Draft.