DENVER — Carpet's the same, nameplates the same, and don't you dare commit the hockey sin of stepping on the center logo. But it's a different Avalanche room these days.
Different in that it's not the usual suspects drawing TV cameras and smartphone recorders. These days after games, like the barnburner Saturday, the usual suspects can hide or do their own thing. Landy, Mikko, Varly — feel free to rehab, play Xbox, whatever millionaires do.
Those guys are still here, of course, and still a big deal to the Avs. But after the Avs beat the Blackhawks 4-2 it was Philipp Grubauer politely requesting a minute to his own, to slide off the stacks of protection afforded NHL goalies, before breaking down his latest triumph in net.
"You guys should talk to someone else for a few minutes," he said.
Take your time, Groovy Gruby. You've earned it, with the never-say-die Avalanche extending their season for longer than they should have.
Very little about all this makes sense. They are being anchored by a No. 2 goalie who’s playing like a No. 1 goalie and says he played like a bad goalie. They've gone two weeks without Gabe Landeskog, at a time of year when captains are usually pretty valuable. They smothered the Blackhawks without offensive maestro Mikko Rantanen, their second-leading scorer. Varly's on the brink of being replaced for good.
Somehow, some way, the Avs have won four straight. The playoff picture? They’re still in it, sliding into the final wild-card spot after getting a little help from their friends and with only seven games left. How?
The Avs are a mission from “how?”
“Not one of my best ones” is how Grubauer — that goalie we were talking about — described his performance before 14,000 or so believers at Pepsi Center. That evaluation was nonsense, too. These Blackhawks are not the Blackhawks who won a bunch of Stanley Cups, but they still have Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and that’s enough to make any goalie anxious.
"Too many pucks bounced today, too many second opportunities," Grubauer said.
"We got the two points, and that's all that matters," he added. "Game is in the past now. We've got to move on to the next one."
The Avs are hanging on to the playoff ledge by a fingernail. Trying to pull them up is a 27-year-old goalie traded to the Avs during the NHL draft last June. “Grubi Dooby Doo,” as a fan shouted on the concourse at Pepsi Center, has been a revelation in the manic month of March.
Avs coach Jared Bednar has gone away from Varlamov, the old hand, and placed the season into the hands of Grubauer. Bednar wouldn’t commit to either goalie for the rematch against Chicago on Sunday, but acknowledged it's a good problem to have. That says a ton about Grubauer. So far his month looks like this: a save percentage of 96.7, two shutouts, five wins and one big chance.
Does Grubauer fit as the Avalanche’s No. 1 goalie for the next several years? Well, "Gruby” has two items working in his favor: a three-year contract with the Avs and, as we’re seeing at the most important time, a willingness, desire and ability to rise to the moment.
The rest? Nonsense. This was not a gang that flourished beyond the top line of Rantanen, Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon. Yet now they are winning games without two of the stars.
For how long?
On Landy, initially thought to be sidelined until the postseason, if there is one, Bednar said: “I think there’s a chance he could come back early.” Prior to puck drop on Saturday, Landeskog was back on the ice, going through a low-key workout that included lifting pucks into a bucket.
And on Rantanen, who was injured after a clean but painful hit against the Stars, Bednar said: “When he feels good enough to play we’ll put him back in.” "Rants" is considered day-to-day.
So are the Avs. Sensible left the building when the Avs lost eight straight games and didn’t tumble out of the playoff picture for good. (Bednar himself called it "a miracle.") Sensible took a right turn out of view when the Avs turned from Varly to Grubauer and caught fire.
"Everything's going our way right now," Alexander Kerfoot said after he had two assists.
Different, and good.