DENVER – The upstart Colorado Avalanche came into the season with a stubborn and strong-minded disposition.
Given their youth, no one expected this fraternity of fledglings to accomplish much of anything. Surely another last-place finish awaited, the pundits predicted.
That us-against-the-hockey-world mentality only served to bring this crew closer.
“We just clicked from Day 1, since everyone was counting us out,” forward Chris Stewart said. “We had a lot of young guys coming in, wanting to win and prove everyone wrong.”
Prove they did, merging together quicker than anyone could’ve anticipated and returning to the playoffs as the No. 8 seed in the West.
Behind rookie-of-the-year candidate Matt Duchene, first-year NHL coach Joe Sacco and unheralded goalie Craig Anderson, the pesky Avalanche threw a scare at the top-seeded San Jose Sharks before tumbling in six games.
“It’s tough right now because we’re disappointed,” Sacco said after the Avs were eliminated Saturday night in a 5-2 loss. “But we’re certainly headed in the right direction.”
Colorado’s run back to respectability began last summer, when the team selected Duchene with the third overall pick in the draft.
This was a kid who grew up idolizing the Avalanche, pictures of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg adorning his bedroom wall. He wanted to be just like them, a star in a Colorado sweater.
Duchene was dangerous with the puck on his stick, finding ways to produce. He led all NHL rookies in points (55) and tied for most goals (24) with John Tavares of the New York Islanders.
To think, the Avalanche considered?albeit briefly?sending him to his major-junior squad for one more year of seasoning.
Instead, Duchene moved into captain Adam Foote’s basement to help advance his hockey education.
“I had to work really hard to make it here,” Duchene said. “Coach gave me chance after chance. Early in the season I made some mistakes, but they kept putting me out there and I learned from there.”
The Avalanche’s youth movement also included players such as Ryan O’Reilly, Brandon Yip, T.J. Galiardi and Stewart. All came on strong during the season, helping the team recover from a slide late in the year to sneak into the playoffs for the 12th time since relocating to the Mile High City in 1995.
Colorado had 12 players make their post-season debut against the savvy Sharks, including the coach himself who was hired soon after last season’s meltdown. Sacco was promoted from the Avalanche’s American Hockey League affiliate after the team briefly flirted with trying to bring in Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, who remains one of the faces of the franchise.
Sacco arrived preaching a speedy and spunky brand of hockey, a style he promised would bring success.
His squad quickly adopted his philosophy, pursuing the puck aggressively and playing on their toes. That approach allowed the Avalanche to stick with the Sharks in a series that featured three overtime games.
That despite the Sharks being on what seemed like a perpetual power play with Colorado missing two of its top offensive threats in Milan Hejduk and Peter Mueller because of injuries.
“Wish I could have been a part of it,” said Mueller, who missed the entire series with a head injury after taking a hit along the boards from Sharks captain Rob Blake late in the regular season.
Mueller was a key addition down the stretch for the Avalanche, providing an offensive spark by accumulating 20 points in 15 games since he was acquired?along with Kevin Porter?in a March trade that sent Wojtek Wolski to Phoenix.
It was a shrewd move by first-year general manager Greg Sherman, one of several he made to bolster the Avalanche. Sherman’s most important decision may have been signing Anderson last summer to be the backbone of the team.
The Avalanche relied heavily on him, almost to the point of exhaustion during the regular season. Anderson set franchise records in starts (71), minutes (4,235), shotsfaced (2,233) and saves (2,047).
In the post-season, he flourished as well, frustrating the Sharks with all his sparkling saves. Anderson established a new team mark for saves in a playoff series with 223, eclipsing the old mark set by Roy more than a decade ago.
“Sometimes, you just need an opportunity,” Anderson said. “It’s what you do with the opportunity.”
The Avalanche certainly made the most of their opportunity this season, relishing in their underdog role.
Next season, that might not be the case. This crew of kids no longer will be taken lightly.
“We have a group of winners in here, guys that have won at different levels,” Duchene said. “If you have a group of winners, you’re going to go far … We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with down the road.”