The Colorado Avalanche have lost once in seven games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and hold a 2-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Second Round. On the surface, this hardly seems like an emergency.
But the way they played the past two games, the way they coughed up the last one, the way coach Jared Bednar spoke afterward, suddenly it feels like they’re in trouble against the Vegas Golden Knights.
“We’re going to have to compete way harder than that in order to beat them, and the sooner we realize that …” Bednar said after a 3-2 loss at T-Mobile Arena on Friday. “If we haven’t already, we’re late to the party.”
The Avalanche blew out the Golden Knights 7-1 in Game 1. At that point, after sweeping the St. Louis Blues in the first round, they had won five straight games by three goals or more.
In retrospect, it was fool’s gold and might have even made them overconfident.
Colorado had six days to recover for Game 1 while Vegas had one day after a seven-game series against the Minnesota Wild, and this was no mismatch. These teams tied atop the NHL standings with 82 points each in the regular season, with the Avalanche winning the Presidents’ Trophy thanks to the regulation-wins tiebreaker (35-30).
The Avalanche won 3-2 in overtime in Game 2, but Philipp Grubauer had to make 39 saves and needed help from his goalposts. They were outshot 31-12 in the second and third periods combined.
One game is one thing. When a team wins the Stanley Cup, it often looks back on a win here or there stolen by the goalie.
But two straight games? That’s a trend. At least the makings of one.
Grubauer made 40 saves and needed help from his goalposts again in Game 3. The Avalanche were outshot 43-20, including 14-3 in the first period and 19-8 in the third. Though they led 2-1 with less than six minutes left in the third, they gave up two goals in a 45-second span.
Just like that, the complexion of this best-of-7 series changed.
“I mean, for five periods straight now, they’ve been far more competitive than we have, and to dissect the game any further than that is a waste of time,” Bednar said. “It’s a waste of time.”
Asked if he was surprised the Golden Knights had more will, Bednar didn’t balk.
“Yeah, I am, because we have a chance to take a stranglehold in the series,” Bednar said. “… It isn’t always pretty. It’s not going to be, especially when you’re couple of the top teams in the League. You’re not going to go out and dominate a team — or shouldn’t, OK? But tonight, they did, and then the last 40 minutes the other night, they did. So it’s too long now. It’s too long.”
Asked if the competitiveness falls primarily on the leaders, again, Bednar didn’t balk.
“Yeah, it starts there,” Bednar said. “It starts there. I mean, I don’t know. I haven’t seen the stats but go ahead and check the numbers on our top guys tonight and see what they did compared to their top guys. It’s not close. The hardest-working player we have right now, OK, is Phillipp Grubauer.”
Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog (two goals, one assist), Nathan MacKinnon (two goals, one assist) and Mikko Rantanen (one goal, one assist) lit up the scoreboard in Game 1. So did top defenseman Cale Makar (one goal, three assists).
Rantanen has two power-play goals in the past two games — the overtime winner in Game 2 and the goal that put the Avalanche ahead 2-1 in Game 3 — but the top players have not produced an even-strength point in two games.
Bednar shuffled the lines in the third period Friday.
“Well, what would you do?” Bednar said. “Did you see anything going on? There’s nothing going offensively the whole night. Zero. So you going to leave it the same? No.”
The Golden Knights were the top defensive team in the NHL in the regular season (2.18 goals against per game), and they have done an excellent job of taking away time and space the past two games. It’s up to the Avalanche to adjust to that, and it’s less X’s and O’s than heart and soul.
“It’s easy for a coach to just say, ‘Well, you got outworked,’ or the players to say, ‘This isn’t working,’ or, ‘That isn’t working,'” Bednar said. “But the video doesn’t lie. They were more competitive from start to finish, then win the hockey game.
“Now we have to come out make that adjustment. That’s the adjustment. People ask me this morning, ‘What’s the adjustment? What are you going to do here?’ The adjustment for us now is to make sure we outwork our opponent and that we execute. And [if] we do that, then we give ourselves a good chance to win the hockey game, but they’re a competitive group.
“Now we have to crank that up, because that’s not close.”