DENVER — Just about 15 minutes after P.K. Subban left the ice rink to a final round of boos, Colorado’s Public Enemy No. 1 stood broad-shouldered at his locker with roughly 100 topics he could have addressed.
His Predators moving on to face the Winnipeg Jets in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The pesky Avs who threatened a Game 7 but fell, 5-0, Sunday at Pepsi Center. His role here, in a hockey state that two decades later still swears the Red Wings, as the favorite villain of the series.
Instead, Subban unloaded again — this time with unfiltered, over-the-top praise for Avalanche wunderkind playmaker Nathan MacKinnon: “So tough to handle. He’s fast, so strong, so shifty. My expectations for him as a player is to be a Hall of Famer by the end of his career.”
Words are whatever. The Avs would encourage heckling if it meant a Game 7. But at the bitter end of a 4-2 series the Avs scored brownie points from a team that’s the envy of the Western Conference. Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, the top-seeded Preds are the standard by which the Avs were going to be measured. And I can say without a shadow of a doubt the Smashville dressing room wasn’t just tossing around meaningless tributes like athletes often do. The Avs are no joke, they said. The Avs are coming, they said.
“They play very modern hockey with a lot of speed. They weren’t afraid to make plays,” goalie Pekka Rinne told me as teammates packed their bags around him. “I was impressed.”
Like riding the Twister across the road at Elitch Gardens, the end of a rollercoaster is a tough one to swallow. Waiting in line to do it all over again — after who-knows-how-long in line — sounds like such a bummer. But what the Avs learned about themselves — and what opened the eyes of folks who know a good success story when they see one, like the Preds — should make the wait a little easier because of what should be coming next.
Nothing about this series suggested the Predators and teams of their ilk are light years ahead of the baby-faced Avalanche, the youngest roster in the NHL. Game 6 was the only game that wasn’t a game. It took the big, bad bully finally putting the Avs in a headlock with no space to breathe to close it out. Sunday, Rinne was a bouncer, and his nightclub was full. Professor Subban and Smashville's blue line taught a 400-level course in how to defend one’s net. Five different Preds whipped one past Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond, who came out for the third to burgers that had been tossed on the ice. If Colorado loves anything, it's sudden cult heroes.
Man, when the Preds finally stomped their foot down, it looked like a piano falling on Wile E. Coyote’s head: two big-boy goals in the first period, pretty much delivering the “Shhhh” sign to 18,007 Avalanche fanatics. It's usually not difficult to catch catfish, who are easy targets. Toss a hot dog on a pencil and they'll take the bait. Not these catfish. The Preds fight back.
“We looked like we ran out of gas a little bit,” coach Jared Bednar said.
Let the record show I still don’t believe the Avs are all the way back. Seeing is believing. We’ve been through this before, four years ago, and the aftermath of that postseason return wasn’t pretty. But it sure looks good, doesn’t it? The way Bednar managed a roster down its top two defenseman and, at the end, top two goaltenders? The way Colorado buzzed for the Avs again and forgot about the NFL draft for a hot minute? The way MacKinnon has embraced the expectations that come with being drafted by Joe Sakic, a true Hall of Famer, with the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft?
Oh, and MacKinnon was ticked, by the way. He looked like the last thing he sought was to stop playing. He looked like he wanted one more breakaway.
“Good bounce-back year,” MacKinnon allowed, his voice trailing off under a sea of TV cameras.
And here’s where MacKinnon scored again: “Next season’s going to be playoffs or a failure.”
Six games sounds about right, actually. The Avs were fast enough, smart enough, gutsy enough to make the Preds break a sweat and a stick or three. They weren’t a pushover that didn't belong and got swept. And they weren’t so much of a true threat to Nashville’s supremacy that a scary Game 7 is in order. The Avs are on the cusp, but even a third-grader is old enough to remember that only means their future could go either way.
“If you think about where the Avalanche have come in two years....” Predators coach Peter Laviolette said.
The next move for the Avalanche is shooting under par, not breaking 90. It’s going to be as tough, if not as surprising, as the move from 48 points to a tense playoff series against a team that reached the Stanley Cup final last year. Hey, the Predators were just in the Avs’ spot, an 8 seed, a year ago.
“I compare them to ourselves last year when we played Chicago (in the first round),” said Rinne, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy and one cool dude. “Everything they did, they did it hard.”
Good thing, because the climb up the NHL won’t be easy. But for five of six games — "They came into our building and won a game," as Laviolette said — these Avs sure looked the part of a franchise prepared for the challenge.