The Avalanche are missing the motivation necessary to repeat
“We got to want it,” said Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar with dead eyes after a painful 5-2 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday night. “We have to want it more than we want it right now.”
With that declarative statement, the coach left the podium, challenging his team to a degree he hasn’t challenged them all year.
It’s been a reflective week for the Stanley Cup champs. Bednar detailed the difficulty of repeating on Wednesday afternoon after an optional skate for the team. He spoke of how daunting a mountain it was to climb once all the celebration was done. It’s hard to imagine climbing Mount Everest, celebrating that accomplishment for three months only to find yourself landing at Katmandu with your sherpa saying, “Okay, let’s do this thing!”
What the Avalanche seem to be lacking is desperate motivation. Bednar admitted that the team was struggling with finding the right combination of energy and desire. Day after day, what the Avs are finding on their ponderous climb are many false summits.
After a depressing three-game losing streak that followed a six-game winning streak, the Avs were able to collect themselves in a 6-0 beat down of the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday. Their next opponent wouldn’t be so easy.
On Thursday night, the Avs faced off against a tough Los Angeles Kings team that they could easily see in the playoffs. The beginning of the game found Colorado playing great defense, as they allowed no shots on net for close to 10 minutes. While they weren’t pouring the pressure on Kings goalie Jonas Korpisalo, they were dominating play. It was looking like another easy cruise for Avs keeper Alexander Georgiev.
But, getting comfortable is dangerous.
The puck bounced loose at center ice. Kings forward Anze Kopitar scooped it up with Adrian Kempe streaking down the ice to his right. Suddenly, there was a flash two-on-one, with only Avs defenseman Cale Makar within reach. Kopitar sent a picture-perfect pass to Kempe. Devon Toews charged desperately to intercept it, but was too late. Like a laser, Kempe blasted the puck into an open net.
One shot, one goal. 1-0 Kings
Perhaps, this was the hockey gods telling the Avalanche that a 30-shot goal differential wouldn’t be granted to them on this night as it was against San Jose.
“If I’m critical of top guys like I was the other night; I understand it,” Bednar said as he spent a relaxed and healthy amount of time with the media after an optional skate on Wednesday afternoon at Family Sports, the teams practice facility / laser tag fun center. “Our energy from our top guys against Seattle was really low, okay. They are also the guys we rely daily to win us hockey games. So, when they are not going, it makes the game infinitely more difficult to win.”
The coach didn’t stop there.
“But if you look at our top group, they’ve consistently been there for us,” Bednar added. “So, it’s not just me burying those guys. It’s just fact. I just turn the page and expect them to just keep doing what they’ve been doing for the last seven years that I’ve been here and that’s win us hockey games. That’s been a lot of hockey games. I don’t think I’m being over critical of them. I’m just stating fact. ”
You could feel something brewing between the coach and his players.
Turning back to Thursday night’s game, late in the first period, there was a scrum for the puck in the corner to the right of Georgiev. Kopitar came up with it and with eyes in the back of his head found Gabriel Vilardi standing alone 10 feet away from Georgiev.
Like a flash of lightning the puck beat the Avs goalie short side. It was only the Kings fourth shot of the period, but it gave them the 2-0 lead.
This was trouble.
“The coaches are always worried,” Bednar reflected on Wednesday. “I’ve used this analogy before. They are like dads. They are always trying to drive the message.”
The head coach knows that only works for so long, however.
“But eventually, our players, management and coaching staff were all on the same page last year,” Bednar continued. “Everybody knew what it would take to win. The players really bought into it because of our past failures. I always hated that expression, ‘You have to lose before you win’ because it’s not always the case. But it’s a grind and it’s hard to win.”
He knows that the three-consecutive playoff disappointments provided the motivation the Avalanche needed a year ago.
“Those previous failures were probably about not being good enough,” Bednar explained. “(All of the) injuries and failing against Vegas and second-round exits, we just didn’t want to see that happen again. But having a team that was good enough last year, reflecting on the past season, (you realize) we weren’t good enough until last season to win. Last year, we made sure we were good enough and that’s the buy in and the accountability and the player leadership plus the depth and skill of our team. So, everybody was all in and we got the job done. Now we are trying to replicate that with a different group.”
If comebacks are the true test of character and buy in, the Avs flunked the exam on Thursday night.
The feisty Sam Girard would get in a scrum and helped draw a power-play opportunity. He then turned to offense as he blasted a one-timer from the point where Evan Rodrigues skillfully deflected the puck past Korpisalo to make the score 2-1.
Would the Stanley Cup champs show the grit that it took to win last year?
Not even close.
Just 24 seconds into the third period, the Avs were sloppy on defense and the Kings’ Adrian Kempe banged home a loose puck to make the score 3-1. Just like the first period, one shot netted one goal.
Kempe would take a hooking penalty a couple of minutes later and the Avs would pounce as Nathan MacKinnon continued his red-hot point streak smoking a goal past Korpisalo. Mac tied the Avalanche / Nordiques franchise record for the longest home goal-scoring streak at eight games and extended his home point streak to 15.
However, the thrill of the comeback was erased just 15 seconds later. Phillip Danault would tip the puck off a Viktor Arvidsson slapper past Georgie to make it 4-2.
The Avs could only hold up for a measly 15 seconds.
“Well, it’s deflating right?” said Bednar after the game. “You get one and then give one back, you’re right back where you started. Again, we played catch-up hockey because of the way we played early in the game. It’s deflating because you know you are right there and it’s a difficult team to score against. Again, I’m gonna repeat it. There’s another level of determination and passion we can play with if we want to win against the good teams.”
His star players didn’t disagree.
“Every mistake we made, they capitalized on,” deadpanned Nathan MacKinnon. “Yeah, it was a weird game. There’s not many lessons (to be learned) you play four times a week. Games are gonna happen. (We) played a great game against San Jose then we made some errors tonight. Make less of them I guess.”
Cale Makar had a different thought process than Nate about what they could take from the loss.
“It’s a playoff-style game,” said Makar. “Your gonna have those ebbs and flows, and we have to find a way to manage that right now. It’s a good learning curve for us as a team. We live and learn and move on from this one.”
The rest of the game was spent flailing away and killing dumb penalties. The Kings would finish the devastation with an empty netter. The heart of the Avs was cut out early and when there was a resuscitation attempt; it was squashed like a bug on the windshield of a Ferrari flying down the 101. A disappointed sold-out crowd of 18,117 saw their heroes go down to defeat 5-2.
But it’s not like we didn’t get a heads up earlier in the week.
Bednar spoke to the fans through the media that captain Gabriel Landeskog may not be returning this season. He also made suggestions that while they will never give up, a better season may await the Avs next year. Thursday night’s loss to the Kings showed us why this was fair warning.