There was a moment Sunday night at Pepsi Center when it seemed like nothing was going to stand in the way of the run the Avalanche is on this season.
St. Louis’ 4-2 loss to Chicago earlier in the day set the table, giving the Avs a chance with a victory against Pittsburgh to pull within three points of the Central Division-leading Blues just 12 days after nine points separated the teams.
The Penguins, already Metropolitan winners and locked into second in the Eastern Conference, didn’t dress multiple regulars Sunday night, including Sidney Crosby, but nevertheless took a 2-0 lead seven minutes into the second period. At that point it was easy to look at the Avalanche from afar and wonder if it had gone to the “comeback” well on too many occasions, this time costing it a chance at capitalizing on St. Louis’ loss.
But then ‘The moment.’
Ryan O’Reilly scored 18 seconds into the third period to make it a 2-1 game, and that got things rolling—on the ice, in the stands, in the minds of Avalanche fans everywhere. A seemingly desperate situation immediately felt bright.
“Can they do it again?”
The teams battled back and forth for nearly the rest of the period as the game adopted an intensity sure to be on the ice when the Avs next skate at home, in roughly two weeks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Defenseman Tyson Barrie (who else?) then directed another "Are you kidding?" scene when he threw a puck at Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury that was deflected by Patrick Bordeleau before wedging into the back padding in the Penguins’ goal.
“They did do it again!”
The Avs ultimately didn’t win—Pittsburgh went on to win 3-2 a shootout—but the overtime point earned and the never-say-die attitude that this team continues to personify, even without Matt Duchene and PA Parenteau and Alex Tanguay, was further indication this team and its fans won’t see their season end easy.
For a squad that finished with the worst record in the NHL last season, did anybody really see this coming? It’s definitely an overused and clichéd sports practice, but if you would have been told the Avs (50-21-7, 107 points) would be just four points out of first place in the Western Conference on April 6 this season, how would you have felt?
If you're being honest, maybe a bit like you felt when Barrie’s shot glanced off Bordeleau’s stick and slipped past Fleury?
“It was a very important point, but at the same time—I might surprise you—I’m happy with our game,” Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. “We could have quit, [2-0] down. A big goal at the start of the third, and then we scored at the end of the third period, and we had our chances in overtime, as well.”
The Avalanche did salvage a point, and for now that will have to be enough.
An emotional 4-0 win Saturday afternoon at St. Louis put the Avs within shouting distance of the Blues in the first place, but that rough-and-tumble victory against a team it hadn't defeated this season, might have drained the tank a little bit for the second half of a back-to-back with a team like the Penguins.
Yes, some of its stars didn't play, but this was still the same Pittsburgh team that won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and was the Eastern Conference's top overall seed last season.
“They were all over us, and we battled back hard, which is important for us,” Colorado center Paul Stastny said. “Being down 2-0 and [battling] it into overtime or even a shootout to get that point, I think, was important for us. Even if we didn’t get the win it was great to see the guys battling back throughout the end of the game.”
Anaheim fell 3-2 to Edmonton on Sunday, about the time the Avalanche and Penguins game went into the shootout, and that loss kept the Ducks (50-20-8) at 108 points on the season, just one ahead of the Avs. St. Louis (52-19-7, 111), Anaheim and Colorado all have four games remaining on their schedules, so there’s still work to be done.
The Avalanche leaves tomorrow for Edmonton and will wrap up its regular season with a back-to-back set on Thursday and Friday in Vancouver and San Jose followed by a single season-finale for both teams in Anaheim next Sunday.
The Avs came into their game with Pittsburgh with a shot of leapfrogging every Western Conference team, but it wasn’t likely, and it got even more unlikely with Sunday’s overtime loss.
But, it also seemed unlikely the Avalanche would even earn that point against the Penguins while both teams were in their dressing rooms during the second intermission. It also seemed unlikely at the end of last month that the Avs would have a chance on this road trip to still claim a divisional and conference regular-season championship.
This whole season seemed unlikely last June, as Joe Sakic stood at the podium at New Jersey’s Prudential Center and announced the Avalanche’s first-overall selection in the 2013 NHL Draft.
You just never know. That’s sports—that’s “Why they play the games,” they say. That’s why the Avs’ rallying cry this season has resonated so much with so many.
Why not us?