NASHVILLE — Goalie pads tastefully organized away from the bustling foot traffic in the Avalanche training room, Jonathan Bernier reflected on the nasty hand infection that placed him in a hospital bed.
It was less than three weeks ago.
“Really scary, to be honest,” Bernier said. And here’s a guy who's had two concussions in the new year, so it must have been terrifying, indeed. Yes, Bernier’s journey to this point in a riveting Avalanche season — Game 1 vs. the Predators here at Bridgestone Arena on Thursday — has been anything but orthodox. Why would the Stanley Cup playoffs be any different?
Hey, it's not me labeling the Avalanche as the longest longshot in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. It's the wise guys in Las Vegas, where the Avs are 16th out of 16 qualifiers to win the whole enchilada.
“We know they’re the best team in the league,” Avs top-liner Mikko Rantanen said of the Preds, who won the President's Cup with 117 points.
But we should all know by now only a knucklehead would discount these Avalanche and say they don't have a chance. For their next magic trick, the Avs pray one man catches fire for a best-of-seven series: Jonathan Bernier.
He's the key. Bernier is these Avs in a nutshell: a former high draft pick, slightly undersized (at 5-foot-11, relative to 6-5 Vezina candidate, Pekka Rinne) and not supposed to be here. Semyon Varlamov is supposed to be here — in net, at least — but Varly’s out for the series with a bum knee.
Enter, Bernier. Exit, hockey pucks.
Even a casual puckhead knows the great equalizer in a playoff series is the goaltender who builds a wall and stands on his head. At different times during this season — the 10-game winning streak comes to mind — Bernier has found himself in what he called “the zone.” Yes, he said, it’s a thing.
I asked him: Can a goalie feel when he’s on one?
“You do get in that zone. But there’s a lot of things that comes with it,” Bernier said. “The goalie can get in ‘the zone,’ but there’s a lot of things that can happen in a game — (puck) hits the post, or you’re out of position and your ‘D’ helps you out in an empty net. It can give you momentum as a team. ... It obviously felt really good last game (with 32 saves in the clincher vs. St. Louis). I want to keep that groove going in the playoffs.”
The goalies in this series traveled unique roads to get here. Rinne was an eighth-round draft pick in 2004. These days he's the odds-on favorite to claim the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
Now take a peek down Bernier's path. You'll need binoculars. Someone, it seems, has always been in his way, and sometimes that someone has been himself. Berner was a first-round draft pick in 2006, the backup to Jonathan Quick when the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and arrived in Colorado as a $2.75-million backup to Varlamov. Along the way were layovers in Maine, New Hampshire, Germany, Toronto and Anaheim.
Bernier's a free agent after this season. Think he can make a few bucks over the next two weeks?
“I think just to let them know that it’s going to very loud the first game, just to get used to that," Bernier said of his advice to the Avs' young'uns, who will open the playoffs in what he called the "toughest building" in the NHL.
It says here you must be a little kooky to volunteer as a tornado chaser, football punt returner or hockey goalie. All three face the competition only when it's coming at top speed. Bernier, however, is as cool and collected as you’ll find in the Avalanche room. The 29-year-old is memorably polite, often thanking media for bothering him with silly questions. His wife Martine is a former runway model, while their baby boy Tyler is a first-ballot pick for the all-cute team. And about that hand infection, sustained when he caught a puck the wrong way: “It’s starting to get better,” he said.
Bernier said about three weeks he woke up between midnight and 3 a.m. to feel his hand inflamed and throbbing from the infection.
“Scary days,” he said.
These are heady days for the Avs, whose rise from 48 points a season ago to a playoff date with the defending Western Conference champs is the best story in hockey. Team captain Gabriel Landeskog began to grow his playoff beard several months ago. Teammates suggested that’s cheating.
“If we make the Stanley Cup Finals he’s going to look like a lumberjack,” defenseman Nikita Zadorov said.
“Nikita cannot say anything,” Rantanen countered. “Look at him. He can’t grow a beard.”
There's one sound the Avs hope to hear in April, and it's not the plop and wiggle of catfish on the ice at Bridgestone Arena: Bern-y! Bern-y!