As a reward for reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs when just about everyone left them for dead in the preseason, the Colorado Avalanche
likely will receive the treat of a first-round matchup with either the Chicago Blackhawks
or San Jose Sharks
It's a gift that's slightly better than a lump of a coal, but far less enticing than a new luxury car parked in the driveway with a red bow on top of it.
Avs first-year coach Joe Sacco isn't complaining, though. He realizes his young team has a mountain to climb as the likely No. 8 seed in the tough Western Conference, but he's hoping some of that naïveté will work in his team's favor as it has during the regular season.
"We got off to such a good start," Sacco explained, referring to his team's 4-2-1 road trip at the beginning of the season. "We had a lot of success on the road in large part because the fact that I don't think our young guys, they didn't know it was supposed to be hard, it was supposed to be difficult. We just went out and we just played.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us no matter who we face. We've matched up pretty well against both teams during the regular season. Now having said that, obviously the playoffs is a totally different animal. The regular season is important, there's no question, but the playoffs present a whole different animal. I think if we do face one of those two teams, I think that we match up pretty well." -- Joe Sacco
"I'm hoping we kind of regain that same kind of feeling that we had at the start of the season moving into the playoffs. Just go out and play our game and really try not to think too much and just kind of let things happen."
It's doubtful the wide-eyed Avs will be unaware of the difficulties awaiting them in either San Jose or Chicago. The Sharks are a perennial power, albeit one that has had its problems in the playoffs. The Blackhawks have been a force that few have reckoned with all season.
There's a better chance of Joe Sakic
taking the ice for the Avs in Game 1 next week than there is of a coach saying he'd rather play one team instead of the other. But Sacco discussed the different problems the Sharks and Blackhawks pose and pointed out their one big similarity -- depth.
"I think with San Jose, the challenge with that team is the size and strength of the (Joe) Thornton-(Dany) Heatley-(Patrick) Marleau line," he said. "We all know their skills, but I think the problem they present is their size and their ability to really control the play down low in the offensive zone. Very hard to contain.
"They also have some pretty good depth. To me, they're more of a team that relies on two-and-a-half, three lines really."
While San Jose has the big bodies, Chicago's forte is quickness.
"When I look at the Blackhawks, I look at depth and how much team speed they have," Sacco said.
The Avs held their own against their potential first-round combatants. They went 2-2 in their season series with the Sharks and they're 1-0-2 against the Blackhawks entering their matchup in Colorado Friday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS).
Maybe there's no need for mind games if the Avs enter the playoffs knowing they can compete against the best in the West.
"Every team now at this time of the year presents different challenges," Sacco said. "But at the end of the day, most of us try to worry about our own team, trying to key in on the strengths of our opposition.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us no matter who we face. We've matched up pretty well against both teams during the regular season. Now having said that, obviously the playoffs is a totally different animal. The regular season is important, there's no question, but the playoffs present a whole different animal.
"I think if we do face one of those two teams, I think that we match up pretty well."
And as history has shown, a top seed in the West guarantees nothing.
In 2009, the top-seeded Sharks were bounced in six games by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks
In 2006, the top-seeded Red Wings and second-seeded Stars both suffered first-round losses, and the eighth-seeded Oilers marched all the way to a seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final before losing.
Of the eight Nos. 1 and 2 seeds in the West since the 2006 playoffs, three have been victims of first-round upsets. Of the four No. 1 seeds, half have gone down. It's not the greatest of odds, but there's no reason for the Avs to think they have no hope against the juggernauts that are this season's Sharks and Blackhawks.
"Now it's time for us to try to make some noise in the playoffs," Sacco said. "Obviously we're a team that's not one of the favorites to come out of the Western Conference in the playoffs, but I always feel once you get in the tournament, anything can happen."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter at: @DLozoNHL