Is Denver Hockey Town?
The East Angels won the Division II national hockey championship, in an exciting and proud moment for East and the city as a whole. Then just a few weeks later, the DU Pioneers won at the college level, claiming their ninth NCAA national title. Now, as they head into the playoffs, are the Colorado Avalanche fated to win at the NHL level and bring the Stanley Cup back to Denver? They appear to be, as they just concluded a spectacular regular season. They had a franchise record 119 points, best in their division and the western conference. They won 56 games, another franchise record. The Avs have two Stanley Cups in their history. This brand of Avalanche hockey is breaking even those teams’ records. It is something truly special, and it is happening right now.
Avalanche hockey is playmaking like Nathan MacKinnon’s goal at home against the Calgary Flames on March 5. The play started with a 2-on-1 for the Flames, which looked dangerous until defensemen Cale Makar and Sam Girard rushed back and slid beautifully to break it up. Makar then gathered the puck and skated up the ice before passing it to MacKinnon, who gave it to Nazem Kadri, now in the Flames’ end with a 3-on-2. Kadri passed back to MacKinnon, and as Makar drove to the net, drawing the defenders away, MacKinnon slammed it into the net--. Just 14 seconds from a golden opportunity for the Flames to a goal for the Avalanche and a roaring crowd in downtown Denver.
That goal is an example of the energetic end-to-end hockey that the Avs are known for. This year, however, Avalanche hockey has morphed to include the slower, more physical game which they have had difficulty playing in years past. They impose their style of play less often, instead opting to play whatever game they find themselves in. They had 22 comeback wins this year, many more than has been common in their modern history.
The Avs have contested and won numerous slower games, including two in overtime against the Edmonton Oilers. (The Oilers have bulked up their roster this year to support their superstars, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.) The first was a fairly low shots on goal affair at home on March 21. Makar made a play to steal the puck during the 3-on-3 overtime, creating a 2-on-1 with MacKinnon, defended only by McDavid and the goaltender. One player sometimes talked about as the best in the world, Makar, passed it to another, Mackinnon, over the stick of the consensus best, McDavid, and MacKinnon scored the goal for the win.
Then on April 9, the Avs traveled to Edmonton, where they tied the game late to achieve a 1-1 tie after regulation. In the overtime, they took a penalty, tantamount to giving up a goal against the Oilers’ offense. For two long minutes and an eight-shot Oiler deluge, Avs goalie Darcy Kuemper repelled shot after wide-open shot from their elite scorers. He then denied McDavid and Draisaitl again in the shootout, which the Avs won with a MacKinnon goal. Kuemper is new to the team this year and had a shaky start to the season, but he now boasts a superb .921 save percentage and has made himself integral to Avalanche hockey.
Rounding out their game this season, the Avalanche are now the best or one of the best at every style of hockey. The slow heavy game is still their weakest, but they have come quite a long way. They have managed to do this while staying one of the highest scoring teams in the league, scoring seven goals or more nine times in countless blowouts. Some of the biggest contributions have come from captain Gabriel Landeskog, anchor defenseman Devon Toews, number two center Nazem Kadri, and power forward Valeri Nichushkin, who have all had career years. That’s not to mention Mackinnon and Landeskog’s right-wing, Mikko Rantanen, one of the highest scoring in the league, or rookies Alex Newhook and Bowen Byram, who will likely both be stars in their own right.
The entirety of the Avs’ deep, star-studded roster was ready for their first round series against the Nashville Predators. lf they can stay healthy or close to healthy for all four rounds of a playoff run, Avalanche hockey could prove an unstoppable force that wins Colorado the Stanley Cup. The Avs seem ready to follow Angels Hockey and Pioneers Hockey to a 2022 championship and make Denver the city of hockey.