March 8, 2013
DENVER — Welcome back, Ryan O'Reilly.
So long, Chicago's streak.
As if seven months of bitter cold wasn’t punishment enough, Chicago must trudge through the lake-chilled winter knowing its points streak is over after 24 games.
There are worse things.
The Avalanche buried the Blackhawks, 6-2. It was Chicago’s first loss (in regulation, ahem) this season, a crazy-good or crazy-overhyped streak, depending on your time zone.
Friday night, the clever Colorado crowd chanted, "Let's go Heat!”
In Chicago, they chant, "Turn on the heat!"
The Avs brought a special guest to the bash: O’Reilly, the former holdout, who made his home debut.
The Avs scored four goals in a rip-roaring second period. O'Reilly had one of 'em.
"I owe it to the fans,” O’Reilly said. “We owe it to the fans."
The fans are owed more than the 22-year-old center, who should have been here in the first place, and an 11th-place standing in the Western Conference.
But this is progress. At full strength, this is what the Avs can look like.
Chicago invaded Pepsi Center, brought its junky weather and filled half the seats with red sweaters. Four years ago Chicago realized it still had a hockey club and took the L to the bandwagon.
In O’Reilly’s first game on home ice in 2013, would the home crowd jump back on his bandwagon? Without hesitation.
Funny thing about sports fans: They are a forgiving bunch, more so in the coldest, fastest game than elsewhere.
Case in point: After a 17-week lockout, NHL attendance actually is up from 2011-12.
Case in point: After O’Reilly thumped in his first goal of the season, a laser slap shot, the hockey roar inside Pepsi Center sounded like a Harley Davidson convention.
"We tend to kind of play to the level of our opponents," Paul Stastny said after scoring a goal and two assists.
Don’t worry, Chicago. The Cubs haven’t lost yet.
The Blackhawks are what the Avs want to be — young, fast and exciting, a powerhouse chasing another Stanley Cup.
For one memorable night, the Avs were the Blackhawks.
"They’re an outstanding hockey team and had a great run,” said Matt Duchene, who had four more points. “It had to end at some point.”
The fourth goal of the second period came from the stick of O’Reilly, a symbolic capper that showed the Avs finally are at full strength and not a moment too soon.
The Avs blew it with their stubborn refusal to budge on O’Reilly’s demands. The crowd reaction in O’Reilly’s home debut was a reminder fans forgive the player long before the franchise. Fans relate better with the men in uniform than the suits in the luxury box.
Colorado is playing good hockey again. For the second straight game, the Avalanche was the equal of hockey’s best team. This time, unlike Wednesday's 3-2, last-minute loss, the Avs didn't let it slip away on the ice.
Colorado is dangerous, not solely because of O'Reilly’s return.
But it sure helps. Just ask the Blackhawks.
Colorado is nearing the midway point of the lockout-shortened season. At an important juncture for their playoff hopes, here are the next three games on the schedule:
Date — Opponent — Head-to-head record
Sunday — vs. San Jose (0-1-1)
Tuesday — vs. Edmonton (1-2-0)
Thursday — at Minnesota (1-1-0)