CALGARY — Colorado had to be at its best over the final month of the of the regular season just to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Avalanche are still playing at that high level and now have their first series win in over a decade.
The Avalanche punched their ticket into the second round on Friday with a 5-1 win over the Calgary Flames in Game 5, their first trip past the first round in 11 seasons.
“We came into the playoffs as underdogs and I think we still see ourselves as underdogs, but our goal is to gain some respect along the way and this is just step one for us,” said Colorado captain, Gabriel Landeskog, who scored the game's opening goal.
After dropping Game 1 by a score of 4-0, the Avalanche reeled off four straight wins to eliminate the Western Conference's No. 1 team during the regular season.
“It's better to finish the season hot,” said right winger Mikko Rantanen. “We were playing our playoffs since March. We were battling for a playoff spot all the time.”
Colorado went 8-0-2 in games 70 to 81 before finally clinching the second wild-card spot.
“You would like to not, maybe, wait until game 81 to make it, but I think there's an advantage to it,” said Landeskog.
“You're grinding game in, game out, and you have to find that playoff desperation even down the stretch and that's what we've been able to do and that's taken us right into where we're at right now.”
Jared Bednar agreed that playing well down the stretch helped..
“We were fighting for our lives for the last 10-15 games,” Bednar said. “We won some big games. We gained some confidence from it. We went on a little bit of a run and I think we carried that into the playoffs.”
It wasn't easy as twice in the series they trailed into the game's final three minutes, only to tie it and then win it in overtime.
“We just got rolling,” said MacKinnon. “We felt like Game 1, we outplayed them and ever since then, the score matched our play. We put up two 50-shot games (in Game 3 and 4) along with a real good Game 2. It was exciting.”
Leading the way offensively was Rantanen, who had two goals and an assist on Friday for his fourth consecutive multi-point game. He's the first Avs player to accomplish that feat since Peter Forsberg (5 games) and Joe Sakic (4 games) both did so during the 2002 post-season.
He missed the final eight games of the regular season with an upper-body injury.
“He was amazing,” said MacKinnon. “It's tough to come back in the playoffs in Game 1. I think he worked it out all the rust and then he lit it up.”
Rantanen finished Round 1 with a team-best five goals and nine points.
“He's taken it to a different level,” Landeskog said. “It's pretty impressive. To step into the playoffs like that, it's not easy to do. But he's been a force.”
While Rantanen was all the talk in the Colorado room, MacKinnon was the guy being praised in the home dressing room.
"Right now, he's definitely the best player still left in the league in my opinion,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano. “He turned it up to another level. I played against him a lot and he's a great player, but this was a whole different level we saw out there in this playoff."
Standing tall in net was Philipp Grubauer, who repeatedly came up with clutch saves at big moments in the games. In both overtime wins, he made stops seconds prior to the game-winning goals.
“The series is much closer to what four games to one says?” Bednar said. “Just like we scored some timely goals tonight, I thought he made some saves that really gave us an opportunity to win.”
In particular, was his pad stop off Mikael Backlund in Game 4. The Avs then went the other direction and won it.
“We've all seen the clip of it over and over. That's a game saver. That is the difference in the hockey game for me,” Bednar said.
Grubauer praised his team's ability to come up with clutch plays.
“The resilience we have on our team, the fight we have when we were down. Huge was guys stepping up in the right moment and scoring goals, getting blocks, getting a save at the right time, it all combines into a great performance,” said Grubauer, who posted a 1.90 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
The Avs will now have some time off, while they await the winner of the Vegas-San Jose series.
“We're not done yet,” Rantanen said. “Everybody's hungry. Even after this game, guys are not celebrating too much. We know we're not done yet. There's lots of work to do. But this is the first step.”
Darren Haynes, The Canadian Press