DENVER -- The fans at Pepsi Center stood and applauded the Colorado Avalanche in the final minutes of their 5-0 loss to the Nashville Predators in Game 6 of the Western Conference First Round on Sunday.
Their final game was a tough one, but it didn't take away from what Colorado accomplished this season, clinching the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the West after finishing with an NHL-worst 48 points in 2016-17. There's plenty of upside for the young Avalanche, and their series against the Predators provided lessons that will benefit them in the future.
[RELATED: Avalanche beset by injuries in first-round loss to Predators | Complete Predators vs. Avalanche series coverage]
"The whole experience of what we're going through, our youth, especially, the grind, the focus, the preparation it takes to be on your game every night, then playing in elimination games and staying with it; all these lessons we're learning, falling down, staying focused, those are things you don't forget as a player or a coach," Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. "The more they can learn at this time of year, the more it's going to help the future of this organization."
Nine players on the Avalanche made their postseason debut against the Predators, but outside of Game 6, they didn't look overwhelmed or outmatched in the series. They made mistakes, but they'll learn from them.
"I think it's a big experience for a lot of guys," forward Mikko Rantanen said. "We had a lot of guys who were [in their] first year in the League and it was only my second year, so [I'm] still learning some things, especially postseason. I think next year our ultimate goal is to get in the playoffs again and it's going to be easier for everybody because there was a lot of guys, including myself too, who played first [playoff] games."
The Avalanche were paced by a dynamic top line of Gabriel Landeskog (seven points; four goals, three assists in the playoffs), Nathan MacKinnon (six points; three goals, three assists) and Rantanen (four assists). MacKinnon has drawn plenty of praise for his season and will likely get Hart Trophy consideration after finishing fifth in the League with 97 points (39 goals, 58 assists).
Video: NSH@COL, Gm3: MacKinnon pots second goal of the game
Predators defenseman P.K. Subban called him, "the best player in the League this year."
"For him and what he's done with this team, a team that's been up and down … he's just come into his own and he's a phenomenal hockey player," Subban said. "I just told him I hope he takes home that trophy that he deserves as the MVP. He deserves it."
Colorado's top players have plenty of years ahead of them. Landeskog is 25, MacKinnon is 22, Rantanen is 21 and defenseman Samuel Girard is 19. As Bednar said, the lessons they learned this season are invaluable and will help them moving forward.
"We have a young team going forward," MacKinnon said. "I thought we showed a lot of fight this season, a lot of adversity that we overcame. Hopefully we can use some of that next season."
The Avalanche got to the playoffs without goaltender Semyon Varlamov (knee) and defenseman Erik Johnson (knee). They kept going when backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier sustained a lower-body injury in Game 4 and Girard missed three games with an upper-body injury. It was a great turnaround for the Avalanche and they have reason to be optimistic about the future.
"A lot of positives, for sure," MacKinnon said. "Definitely a lot of people didn't see us in this position coming into the season. You know, everybody thought we weren't going to make it, thought we'd be the odd-team out in the West. It's nice to prove people wrong and have a good, young team going forward."
Complete Coverage of the Stanley Cup Playoffs
Predators vs. Avalanche
Jets vs. Wild
Golden Knights vs. Kings
Ducks vs. Sharks
Lightning vs. Devils
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets
Penguins vs. Flyers