DENVER — This one will hurt, at least for a few weeks, at least until the big picture sharpens into focus.
The Avs weren’t supposed to lose like this. Not these Avs. This is how they win, on a goal that steals the heart of their fans and punches the gut of their opponent.
Instead, it was Minnesota winning, 5-4, late Wednesday in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series. That will hurt.
But the truth is, this Avs season was always more about discovery than disappointment. It didn’t feel that way for the 18,511 who wired Pepsi Center like a subwoofer and hoped for — no, expected — another last-minute triumph from the home team. It definitely didn’t feel that way in an Avalanche dressing room that had Ryan O’Reilly tugging at his hair and P.A. Parenteau staring into the carpet.
But it was. This season was a discovery that will last longer than a single playoff series, eventually lost when Wild wing Nino Niederreiter slipped one past Semyon Varlamov four minutes into overtime.
The discovery started on draft day. Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy tied their No. 1 pick to a baby-faced 18-year-old. They discovered Nathan MacKinnon, a future superstar with turbo jets tied to his skates.
The Avs discovered a coach who seemed to make all the right moves. Roy played seven-plus seasons in Colorado and, unless the Montreal job opens up, will coach here much longer.
They discovered a goalie who has the confidence to develop into the best in the game. Shoot, Varlamov, a Vezina finalist, might have been that this season.
They rediscovered a Colorado fanbase that won’t outnumber that of the Broncos. But it might be louder, less spoiled, and, judging from the beer lines between periods 2 and 3, thirstier.
“Seeing our fans so excited about our team makes me so happy,” Roy said afterward.
They discovered this won’t be easy, claiming the franchise’s third championship. Hey, their coach tried to warn them: “Winning a Stanley Cup is hard,” Roy whispered before Game 5.
But it’s quite clear they will win one. With a core of gifted forwards and the Varly Wall behind them, it’s coming, sooner or later. A Game 7 defeat simply made it impossible this year.
These Avs never made it look easy. They made it look really, really hard — and usually pulled it off. But playing with fire finally burned them.
They built a 1-0 lead and gave it back. They built a 2-1 lead, gave it back, built a 3-2 lead, gave it back. Soon after Erik Johnson’s rocket shot built a 4-3 lead, the Avs gave it back.
When these Avs are all grown up, they won’t give back those leads. They will stack more goals on top. But they aren’t all grown up.
“It’s a process,” Roy said. “It’s a learning process.”
What hurt is not that the Avs missed an opportunity to win a Stanley Cup. Neither the Avs nor the Wild are playing at a level that should concern the Blackhawks in the Western Conference semifinals. The loss didn’t hurt because the Avs were obviously better than the Wild and just blew it. This wasn’t the Ravens over the Broncos.
This one stung because these Avs were so easy to like. They bubble over with personality. They were a sweet surprise no one wanted to see end. They were the kid who refused to leave the pond even after mom and dad said it’s time to come in.
This one tickled more than it hurt.
In that respect, there’s more good news than bad news. These Avs figure to stay largely intact for a long time. For 12 players on the roster, this was their first rodeo in the NHL playoffs.
It won’t be their last. Far from it.