Story By Michael Kelly
The Colorado Avalanche had the game won.
Time was running out, and Colorado led Los Angeles, 5-4. Then, with less than 4 seconds left in the Feb. 24 game, an old friend put the Avalanche in danger. Rob Blake scored to tie the game, and in a six-round shootout, Dustin Brown beat Peter Budaj and the Kings stole a point.
If there's a good loss in sports, this one might qualify, because it spawned one of the Avalanche's greatest runs in franchise history.
"That might have been the turning point," Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville says of the loss to the Kings.
Colorado lost again the next night, a 5-3 setback in Anaheim, but after that, things were different. Suddenly, Colorado was finding ways to win. On the road, at home, it didn't matter. The Avalanche found a way to earn two points most nights.
Colorado has finished the season by going 14-2-2 in its last 18 games heading into Sunday night's season finale against the Calgary Flames. The Avs were 12 points out of a playoff spot when this stretch began on Feb. 27 and closed the gap to three points heading into the final weekend. Colorado was not eliminated until the second-to-last day of the regular season on April 7.
"We started winning, guys felt loose, we made a couple of adjustments and it seemed to work," said Avalanche captain Joe Sakic. "We've paid a lot more attention to detail."
It's not hard to find out why Colorado went from .500 to a heated battle for a playoff spot on the final weekend of the regular season. To a man, the players say they got better defensively.
"I think as a whole, as a team, we've been paid much better detail to defense," forward Andrew Brunette said. "Before, we'd get down in a game and try to make it up and end up down three or four goals. When it starts working, you see it, and it evolves from there."
Colorado's game against San Jose on March 18 was a prime example. With 15:51 left in the second period, the Avalanche fell behind, 3-1. Instead of pressing and abandoning its disciplined game plan, Colorado kept plugging along. Four minutes after Bill Guerin put the Sharks up by two, defenseman John-Michael Liles scored. Then, with 6:46 left in regulation, Brunette tied it. Milan Hejduk finished the comeback by scoring 19 seconds into overtime.
There was nothing fancy about the win. The Avalanche didn't need power plays to mount a comeback, just faith in the game plan and a patience to have it pay off.
"That San Jose game, we were down a couple, and earlier in the year we were trying to get it all back in a minute and a half, and we found ourselves down three or four," Brunette says. "We feel we have the offense to stay within reach."
The Avalanche offense has never been an issue - Nashville is the only Western Conference team to score more goals this year - but defense was. That was remedied over the last six weeks of the season. Before Colorado beat Columbus, 3-2, on Feb. 27 to start its push for the playoffs, it had given up five or more goals in a game 14 times. After that, the Avalanche got stingy, giving up as many as four goals only three times - and one of those games was a shootout loss in Edmonton.
"We're playing defense," Quenneville says. "We're not thinking about attacking, just about killing the play. If we get the puck cleanly exiting our zone, all the better. We're limiting rushes off the end of shifts."
Those little adjustments have added up to an incredible streak for Colorado.
"It's not like we changed much. We were scoring a lot of goals, but we were allowing a lot of goals," Hejduk says. "The defense played a little tighter, we aren't giving up a lot of 2-on-1s where in the beginning of the season we were giving up a lot of 2-on-1s and 3-on-2s. We've been better in that department, and now we're getting the lucky breaks we haven't been."
The Avalanche has been getting good goaltending, too. Budaj was named the NHL's â€˜First Star' in March after posting a 10-0-2 record in 13 appearances.
He didn't let the honor go to his head, either, winning big games in Calgary and Vancouver in the first week of April to keep the Avalanche in the playoff race.
"Our whole March was great; we played really solid," Budaj says. "We showed that, even though we put ourselves in a position that we did, we battled."
It hasn't been one player that's been the key, either. From Joe Sakic to Jeff Finger, the Avalanche has gotten solid play from everyone. Defenseman Kurt Sauer, who was a healthy scratch for much of the first half of the season, has stepped in and become a force on the blueline.
"We've been getting contributions across the board," Quenneville says. "Joe's been real good through this stretch, Peter's been solid. We felt all year long we could have been on one of these streaks, but it was what we were giving up. There's plenty of offense on our team, we just had to have a commitment to playing without the puck."
That commitment started quietly and grew from there. Colorado's win over the Blue Jackets at the end of February seemed like window dressing on a lost season, but it was followed up with a 4-0-1 road trip that included some of the best - and hottest - teams in the NHL. The Avalanche won in Detroit, Buffalo and Boston before losing in a shootout in Minnesota.
The Avalanche went more than a month without losing in regulation, and it gained valuable points in the standings to put the heat on Calgary.
"All year we've been saying we haven't been getting on a roll, and that's what you need to make the playoffs," Liles says. "The most games we strung together were four or five games. We were about due.
"It all starts with the help we get from the other guys. Whether it's Peter Budaj or Jose (Theodore) making big saves for us, or our forwards backchecking, which allows us to stand up at the blueline, it's everybody on the ice coming to terms with playing better defense on the ice. It's been everybody on the ice helping us win games."
Despite not making the playoffs for the first time since moving to Denver, the Avs are confident that their play down the stretch-especially on the defensive end-will carry over into next year's training camp.
"The way we played down the stretch, I think the guys grew up a lot," Sakic says. "We just have to build on it for next year. I think everybody learned what it takes to win. Unfortunately we didn't make the playoffs this year but the guys are going to learn from this and going into training camp are going to know how to win."