DENVER — You have to feel good about where this is going. Oh, it stings more than a bee after the Predators outlasted — that’s the right word, too — the Avalanche 3-2 late Wednesday in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
But you have to feel good about where this is going. I’m talking about the macro view, not the micro view, which has the Avs headed back to Smashville on Friday with a 3-1 series deficit and mighty hill to climb. The Avs must win three straight against a team that’s lost three straight only twice. The craps and blackjack tables in Black Hawk have better odds.
I’ve seen too much from these Avalanche to count them out. It doesn't look good for the home team — until you yank out a pair of binoculars and peer down the road. It’s all good, folks. Through general manager Joe Sakic’s patient moves and with a wee bit of luck, the Avs have assembled three of the most important pieces a hockey club can have: a sharp coach, a superstar and a gutsy leader. What Jared Bednar, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog have done this season should make anyone who appreciates a bright hockey future sip their morning coffee with a smile.
There were roughly 47 times inside Pepsi Center on Wednesday when the Avs could have thrown in one of the white pom-poms that waved through the crowd of 18,007 and called it a day. The starting goalie (Jonathan Bernier, who’s the backup, don’t forget) left the game with a lower-body injury. The absence of Erik Johnson and Sam Girard was bound to bite back, and Game 4 was when it finally did. Twenty-two-year-old forward Mikko Rantanen has been quiet as a mouse. Did I miss anything else?
That’s why you have to feel good about where this is going. All that, and the baby Avs had the top seed in the Western Conference on the ropes yet again. Call it a moral victory. But it’s all pretty impressive, if you ask me. The Avs needed almost everything to go right to have a series shot against the Preds. They've had almost nothing go right, and every game's been a game.
It’s a fun anecdote to call the Avs resilient, and they are. But what’s truly inspiring about the future of the franchise is how the big three pieces are growing into their given roles almost in unison. Bednar, Landeskog and MacKinnon are really new at what they're trying to do. In his first NHL gig, Bednar took over an enormous rebuilding job with a level head, put the Avalanche back in the postseason for the first time in four years, and he’s somehow kept the Avs in a series they have no business being in. Bednar’s been as loose as pocket change while Preds coach Peter Laviolette sounds and looks like every press conference is held in the lobby of a dental office.
Landeskog’s leap took longer than what the Avs expected. For some reason they slapped a “C” on Landy’s sweater when he was still only 19, famously making him the youngest captain in NHL history. It was a silly idea then and a desperate one in retrospect. But these days it’s a perfect fit: the heart and soul of the dressing room wore No. 92 throughout the Avs’ 47-point improvement and through the first four games of this series.
And MacKinnon? Shoot, you guys have seen it. He’s a blur. And the Hart Trophy candidate is only going to get better with age and a little less pressure to dress as Superman every night the puck drops.
“I loved our third,” Bednar said, referring to a final period that saw the Avs scratching, clawing and pulling within a single goal after being thoroughly dominated over the first two periods. “But we need to find that earlier.”
The Avs need a bunch of things, top-tier goaltending and a healthy and a physical blue line at the top of the list, but the big three might be the toughest to find. They have the foundation to build a sweet place to reside for a while. That's what I've taken away from this series.
“Getting to the playoffs is going to speed up the process for us. All of us,” the Landeskog, 26, said before the series began. “Even for me.”
The Predators are a more complete team. You’d have to be a taco short of a fiesta to think otherwise. But color me shocked if these are the Preds who raise a Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history. Hockey teams that host parades don’t let a banged-up roster like this one — the youngest in hockey — hang around like this. Colin Wilson hit the post with 2 minutes left in regulation, a goal that would've tied it. Pepsi Center might've lost its roof.
The Predators didn’t turn up the heat in Game 4. They turned up the heat the day before Game 4, when Laviolette pushed them through a spirited and competitive workout in an empty Pepsi Center. It seemed like an odd thing to do with a team that already has played 85 games and has a long road to a Stanley Cup ahead, but Nashville's bullish start to Game 4 proved it was the right thing to do. They've been here. And there they were, dropping their sticks to do push-ups on the ice whenever their side “lost” a drill.
The Avs lost a pivotal Game 4. Doesn't it feel like this season's been a win?