The locker room was quiet, and the Avalanche players had blank looks on their faces minutes after a gut-wrenching 5-4 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday night.
They’ve dealt with losses all season, but Game 7 has a finality that stings. Once the hurt subsides the Avalanche can relish a season that reignited their fan base and has hopes raised for a lot more playoff hockey in the future.
“I have mixed feelings. There’s a side of me that’s very disappointed because we could have won that game,” coach Patrick Roy said. “But there’s a side of me that’s extremely proud of those players. I don’t have enough words to say how proud I am of them.”
Considering the Avalanche went from last in the Western Conference to winning a ninth division title since coming to Denver, the season has to be considered a success. But winning 52 games only made them hungrier, and losing an elimination game on home ice is tough to take.
“We made huge strides, coming from second-to-last to the top five and a 50-win season,” rookie center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We wanted to make a run here, and we had a chance twice to win the series, once in Game 6 and obviously tonight. It’s tough to describe what went on. We’ve got to wait until September to get things going again, which is going to be a long summer, especially watching the playoffs. It’s going to be tough.”
That’s good news. The hurt of losing has made the players hungrier.
“We’re still young. It’s tough to win with as little experience as we have,” center Matt Duchene said. “This is a great one to help us go forward here.”
The Avalanche can take many lessons from the series. Despite some tough injuries they were able to come within 2:27 of advancing to the second round.
They didn’t have Duchene for the first five games, center John Mitchell never suited up because of a head injury, and they lost defenseman Tyson Barrie to a knee injury in Game 3.
Add to that the fact that top-line defenseman Jan Hejda played the entire series with a broken left hand that required surgery after the last regular-season game and what Colorado accomplished in this series is even more impressive.
“At the end unfortunately injuries were a factor,” Roy said. “Losing a guy like Barrie and a guy like Mitchell were tough and Dutchy coming in late. But we don’t want to use these as an excuse. We got beat by a team that played really well and a team that deserved to win as well.”
The future is bright, however. With the stable of young players, a goaltender who carried them at times and a dynamic young star in MacKinnon, Colorado is expected to only get better. But as Roy pointed out several times in this series, winning in the playoffs is a learning process, and playing in a Game 7 is a big part of it – win or lose.
"As much as we were dreaming it'd be possible to win the Stanley Cup," he said, "we knew it would be tough for us to win the Stanley Cup because we're not there yet. It's hard to say that, but it's a fact."
The players didn’t want to think about the process so soon after their season abruptly ended. Despite their youth and playoff inexperience they expected to go deep into this postseason and do the unexpected.
“Maybe in a couple of weeks we’ll sit down and look at all the amazing things we accomplished,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “Right now it’s just an empty feeling. What do we do now? You work so hard you expect to do more than this. We had so much planned, it’s an empty feeling. It’s hard to describe.”
The hurt is part of the lesson. The players learned that legends are created in the postseason, and learning from this Game 7 loss will only make them better and more resilient.
“Guys are proud of what we did this year in the regular season,” defenseman Erik Johnson said. “You measure yourselves on playoff success. It’s hard to say this is a good learning experience because you want to win. We have a pretty young nucleus that will benefit from that game.”
Words like that make Roy happy.
“All year we were never satisfied, and certainly we are not going to start tonight,” he said. “It was a great experience this year. It was fun for me to be part of it, and one thing we are all proud of is to see the Avs back on top. I think that should motivate us to have another good year next year and prepare ourselves really well over the summer.”