This year's Stanley Cup Playoffs have a feel to it that is familiar but also different than what everyone has become accustomed to over the last 16 months. The postseason actually has a sense of normalcy with teams finally getting the chance to battle it out in front of arena crowds in the U.S. that have gotten incrementally larger and nearing full capacity.
The fans make the postseason more fun for athletes in any sport, and the Colorado Avalanche players have fed off that energy from their home supporters at Ball Arena since they've been allowed to return.
"It felt like it was completely packed to be honest with you," said Cale Makar following the Avalanche's first playoff game this year. "It was pretty cool to come out to that many amazing fans and just to have that amazing atmosphere again. Obviously we had the 4,000 or whatever in the regular season, but to add a few thousand here for the playoffs is pretty incredible."
The number of Avs Faithful allowed in the building to cheer on the club has significantly grown since it was only healthcare workers and first responders invited to attend the game on March 31. Capacity in Colorado's barn has since grown from 4,050 to 7,750 to 10,500 and could be at 17,400 if the club is able to advance to the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
For the players, any number of fans have been a welcomed addition after playing last year's playoffs in the quiet and empty Rogers Arena in Edmonton, Alberta.
"Weirdly enough, you don't realize how much it means until they're not here," said forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare earlier in this postseason. "Last year, because of the break and the four-month quarantine, when we started to play it was playoffs, you get excited. Whatever the reason was, you were like 'alright, we just have to play the game' and it was playoffs. Then this year, you went to places where you had crowds and then you go to another place where there was no crowd, and you were like 'this is not as fun'… I mean seven and a half thousand definitely sounded like it was 20,000 people in this building. It was amazing and then you realize this is a different sport, this is so much better. It was really fun to see everybody."
Colorado has also enjoyed the fan experience as the road team this year, relishing the chance to be villain while the home crowd rained down boos from their seats.
"I mean a year after no fans, the crowd is awesome," said head coach Jared Bednar. "It doesn't matter if you're playing at home, obviously we love playing at home in front of our group, and if you're playing on the road in a hostile environment where they're cheering and screaming and rooting against you, I think it's equally as fun. It's part of the competition, and it's why they love to play. The fans make it a fun game and an entertaining game."
So much focus last year in the "bubble" was to finish what the league started by crowning a Stanley Cup champion while keeping everyone safe. It presented a unique set of circumstances that players, coaches and staff were fine dealing with in order to further the sport and get a chance to raise that silver chalice.
Unlike in 2020, this year's playoffs didn't have a four-month break leading up to it, as clubs carried momentum with them from their regular-season play and have gained energy from the fanatics in the stands.
"It just feels more like normal than last year and although there has been a lot of adversity and changes during the regular season, things are starting to seem more normal now and fans added to the building certainly helps that," said Bednar. "Playing in your own building and going and experiencing the fans and the hostile environments in other teams' buildings just makes it seem like a regular playoffs even though the stands aren't full yet to this point. There's still hoops we jump through as players and staff on a daily basis, it's just much more like a regular playoffs."
This year has certainly showed the Avalanche how much the club missed its fans, and the atmosphere they've created is certainly something the players aren't taking for granted.
These playoff games almost feel normal to the players, and they should.
"Absolutely amazing, it felt almost sold out to be honest with you," said captain Gabriel Landeskog following Game 1 versus the St. Louis Blues. "We came out there for warmups and it felt half full already and obviously the pom poms and everything, it's a pretty special atmosphere to be able to come and call your place of work. We're really enjoying playing in front of our fans again, we missed them throughout that whole time that we weren't able to play in front of them."