The Colorado Avalanche battled all season long to try and put itself in the best position for success in the postseason, but the team's run in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs has come to an end.
The Avs dropped their Round 2 matchup 4-2 against the Vegas Golden Knights following a 6-3 loss in Game 6 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday night.
"What's going through my head right now is just disappointment. You see the look on our guys' faces and how much they want it and how hard they care and how hard they are working and just to come up short, it just hurts," said head coach Jared Bednar. "Guys put a long year in of work and commitment and dedication to the team and you don't get to where you want to go, so it's disappointing.
"It is not easy to win, and we are learning that. It's just disappointing. Some guys have been working for it here for multiple years together and just trying to keep taking steps forward. You got to tip your hat to Vegas, it's a great hockey team and they played real well. They were consistent throughout the series in the way they played, and we just couldn't get the job done."
The Avalanche finished the season with 82 points (39-13-4), tied with Vegas atop the league standings. Colorado claimed the franchise's third Presidents' Trophy (1996-97, 2000-01) and 10th division title since moving to Denver (12th in franchise history) by way of the regulation-win tiebreaker (35-30).
After battling all season at the top of the West Division standings, it seemed inevitable that the clubs were going to meet in the second round. The series marked only the fourth time in Stanley Cup Playoff history in which two teams that tied for first overall in points during the regular season went on to meet in the playoffs.
Video: Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog on the season
Colorado won the first two outings of the set but dropped Games 3 and 4 in Las Vegas, falling 3-2 and 5-1, respectively. In Game 5, the Avs made adjustments and improved their play while putting together a solid performance, but the squad lost 3-2 in overtime.
"Looking back on it now and evaluating the series afterwards, obviously Game 2 we got away with a win there where I think probably they were the better team. Then Game 3 especially we didn't play good at all. Game 4, we really competed hard, made mistakes that they scored on, and Game 5 obviously we are in control the whole game," said captain Gabriel Landeskog. "Game 5 is a really strong effort from us, and we make three turnovers and they score on all three of them. Then tonight I thought we fought real hard and battled and worked our [butts] off and kept coming back.
"But a couple bounces go the wrong way and a couple shifts where we are not really engaged and not really focused, they capitalize on. But listen, I am real proud of that group in there. Proud of the season we've had. Obviously, you are never going to be satisfied, you are never going to be happy until you win that final game of the season."
The Avs overcame two COVID-related pauses in the campaign, the only team to suspend play twice in 2020-21, and had the second-most man-games lost to injury and illness in the league with 313. Despite the challenges it faced, Colorado finished with its highest points percentage in franchise history (.732), breaking the previous mark of .720 set in 2000-01.
However, a good main campaign doesn't guarantee a long playoff run.
"Nobody wants just a good regular season and then lose in the second round. I know all of us want to win and that is what we are pushing for, so right now it is tough to find positives," Mikko Rantanen said after Game 6. "I know everybody put their heart out there and Vegas was just that much of a better team, 4-2 in the series. Have to give credit to them. All the guys on our team gave their hearts out so can't really do much else."
Video: Mikko Rantanen after the season-ending loss in Vegas
The Avalanche advanced to the second round for the third straight year, its longest streak of making it to the second stage of the postseason since doing so in four straight years from 1999 to 2002. Colorado fell in seven games to the San Jose Sharks in 2019, and the club lost in seven outings again in 2020 versus the Dallas Stars.
"I am definitely motivated, and it just sucks losing four in a row to a team," said MacKinnon. "It felt like last year was our first real chance to win. And this year, I mean I thought we were the best team in the league, but for whatever reason we couldn't get it together. I am sure in training camp next year we will figure it out and dissect things and come back better."
Before the Avs can flip the page to the 2021-22 season, they will look back on this season for a few months and work on improving before getting another chance to compete for the greatest trophy in all of sports.
"You got to reflect on it and spend some time and put some deep thought into it, not that you are not putting thought into it all year, but there are always things you can learn, there's always things you got to get better at," said Bednar. "Individually, myself, our team, our players and then collectively as a group as well, we will identify some of those things and get ready for another go at it."
Video: Avs coach Jared Bednar after the season-ending loss
50 POSTSEASON GAMES FOR MacK
Nathan MacKinnon skated in his 50th career postseason contest and finished with two assists in the outing. He now has 69 points (28 goals, 41 assists) in the playoffs.
His totals through 50 playoff games are the most among active players, besting fellow Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby (66 points) who previously held the mark. In fact, MacKinnon's 69 points tie Mike Bossy for the fifth-most all time, trailing only Wayne Gretzky (104 points), Mario Lemieux (101 points), Jari Kurri (71 points) and Joe Sakic (70 points).
MacKinnon's 1.38 goals-per-game average in the playoffs ranks first among active players and fourth in NHL history. In that category, he trails Gretzky (1.84), Lemieux (1.61) and Barry Pederson (1.52).
Video: Nathan MacKinnon after the Game 6 loss to Vegas
MORE POSTGAME NOTES
The Avalanche and Golden Knights concluded their first ever playoff series. The clubs did play one postseason game in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers in Edmonton, a 4-3 overtime win by Vegas.
It was Colorado's 37th playoff series since arriving in Denver (22-15). Overall, it was the 52nd playoff series in franchise history (28-24) and 46th best-of-seven series (25-21). The Avalanche/Nordiques own a 159-139-1 all-time record in 299 playoff games, which includes a 124-94-1 mark in 219 contests since becoming the Avalanche.
Devon Toews opened the scoring for Colorado 23 seconds into the contest, the fastest goal to start a playoff game in franchise history. The previous record was 29 seconds (Wilf Paiement in Game 2 of the Division Finals at Boston, April 16, 1982).
Andre Burakovsky scored, and in 14 career potential elimination games he now has 14 points (10 goals, four assists). The only active player with more markers in those situations is Washington's Alex Ovechkin (13 goals).
Mikko Rantanen scored on the power play and now has eight points (four goals, four assists) in eight career potential elimination games. It ties Adam Foote for the seventh-most points in Avalanche/Nordiques franchise history in such contests.
It was Rantanen's third power-play goal of the postseason, tied for fourth in the league in playoff tallies on the man advantage. He registered a point in nine of Colorado's 10 games in the playoffs, totaling 13 points (five goals, nine assists).