The playoffs ended with one arm tied behind the collective back of the Colorado Avalanche last season, injuries depleting them to the point where they left the Edmonton bubble after two rounds with a disappointed shrug.
“I would have liked to have seen our team fully healthy,” said Nathan MacKinnon, after a Game 7 loss in Round 2 to the Dallas Stars, a game started by third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson. “You can call it an excuse or whatever you want. That’s just the way it is. We lost some key guys to our team.”
This spring, with a healthy lineup and a divisional foe rolling into Denver after polishing off Minnesota in a seventh game just two nights prior, the Avalanche wasted no time declaring their dominance out West. They are healthy, and they are good.
Colorado beat the Vegas Golden Knights as thoroughly as one team can defeat another Sunday night, opening their West Final in a 7-1 rout. It was a tour de force that was stated emphatically that the Avalanche may have ran out of bullets last year.
“I love the way our team played tonight,” said Colorado head coach Jared Bednar. “Right away, out of the gate, great skating, tremendous puck pressure, capitalizing on our chances… The top line set the tone, but our whole team was very good.
This Game 1 was about “learning from the past,” Bednar continued. “We discussed the Dallas series. We wanted to make sure we used our legs tonight, and just play to our identity. Turn it up a notch in the second round.”
Rest beat rust in Game 1 of this series, with Colorado siting around for a week after sweeping the St. Louis Blues.
Did Vegas fail to make the emotional leap from a frantic Game 7 to the start of a new series?
“We didn’t play well. They played a good game,” said Vegas captain Mark Stone. “They came out ready to go.”
The Vegas top line of MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen scored twice in the first period, then blasted tree more home in a four-goal second period for Colorado. Makar was a magician on the blue line with three assists and a goal.
Surely Vegas goalie Robin Lehner found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time when Vegs head coach Peter DeBoer gave him his the start, spelling off Marc-Andre Fleury, who played every minute of Round 1 for Vegas.
The Avs came out, as Ilya Bryzgalov so famously said, “Like gorillas coming out of a cage.”
“Listen, rest is a weapon. Especially at this time of year,” Landeskog said. “We knew they were coming off a seven-game series with one day of rest, and we wanted to make sure we had a fast start.”
“Flower had just played seven games in 14 days, and an emotional Game 7,” explained DeBoer, who you can bet will go back to Fleury for Game 2 on Wednesday. “It was a perfect opportunity to use our other starter — that’s been a strength of ours all year.
“The game tonight wasn’t about Robin Lehner. We didn’t play well enough in front of him.”
The one play that took this from a simple rout to a dangerous game of frontier justice was a hard, injurious hit by Avs defenceman Ryan Graves on winger Mattias Janmark, who did not return to the game. Janmark was engaged with another Colorado player and Graves took full advantage.
That the hit came with Colorado holding a 4-0 lead was gas on the fire, and that fire burned right through a third period that saw Vegas tough guy Ryan Reaves ejected with a match penalty for bloodying Graves.
“(The Graves hit) is blindside interference. We didn’t like the play, and we lost a player. We’re trying to get those hits out of the game,” said Stone, who had no problem with his team’s search for vigilante justice the remainder of the evening. “Let’s be honest – you’re down 4-0 halfway through the game. It’s a long way to climb yourselves out of.”
The league will look at the Reaves play, as they do all match penalties.
“Reaves was on a mission to hurt someone there in the third,” said Landeskog. “And that’s what he goes out and does.”
Stay tuned. It’s heating up out West.