Stuff happens. And it stinks, especially when it happens all at once to the Avalanche, now on the brink of NHL playoff elimination after a mind-blowing, confidence-rattling 5-4 loss to Dallas.
The sad image seared into the eyes of everybody who loves the Avs was also the greatest cause of heartburn on a Sunday when absolutely nothing went right, especially for Cale Makar, who committed a boo-boo for the ages.
Makar, the brilliant young defenseman who was no worse than Reason No. 1A why Colorado has any chance to win the Stanley Cup, skates and competes until he’s red in the face on every shift. But he was left red-faced with embarrassment after a third-period turnover handed Dallas what proved to be the decisive score.
“Plays like that happen during the course of a game and the course of a career. God knows how many turnovers I’ve had,” said Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog, who felt Makar’s pain deep in his bones.
“(Stuff) happens. That’s all it is.”
Here’s how it happened (parental discretion advised, if you read this upsetting recap in the presence of a small child):
Barely 30 seconds after Colorado surrendered a goal a maddening two ticks before a Dallas power play was over, Makar collected a puck left for him behind his net by goalie Pavel Francouz with the Avs trailing 4-2, then began to reset the attack with a casual exit from the defensive end of the rink.
It was a routine play Makar mastered before learning his multiplication tables as a child. Except this time, during one tiny instant of lost focus, Makar turned the play into a hockey disaster that simply cannot happen to a hockey club already trailing 2-1 in a best-of-seven series to a Dallas team that smells weakness in the Avs.
From behind the cage, Makar gave the puck one quick flip with the backside of his stick blade … and then watched in panicked disbelief as it dribbled right through Francouz’ blind spot and directly in front of the goal mouth, where Denis Gurianov immediately pounced on the mistake and plopped a score into the empty net, giving the Stars a 5-2 lead.
Hey, stuff happens.
And it keeps happening all at once for the Avs, now up to their elbows in trouble, with no time to take a mental break, with a Game 5 that could end Colorado’s season scheduled Monday night.
The harsh reality of bubble hockey in this strange year of the coronavirus is all the hassles and challenges of living and competing under quarantine encourage a team down on its luck to surrender. In the time late last week the NHL playoffs took off to address the Jacob Blake shooting and demand social justice, the Avs let their momentum grow stale in the Edmonton bubble.
“You’ve got to really want it, be mentally tough and believe,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.
Truth be told, it seems as if Dallas wants it more. Although they aren’t shy to deliver hits, the Avs are being bullied, particularly in front of their own goal, and everywhere else on the ice by Stars captain Jamie Benn, who believes in firing sharp elbows and asking questions later.
Colorado superstar Nathan MacKinnon recorded an assist to extend his amazing streak of excellence in this postseason, but got off only two shots, with Dallas shadowing him so relentlessly he knows what the Stars ate for lunch.
“We’re letting their big bodies stand in front of the net and tip pucks unharmed,” MacKinnon said. “We can win more battles, be more mean in our crease.”
That’s the real hard truth Colorado hasn’t been able to handle. The long road to the Cup is not for the faint of heart. And the Stars simply have been meaner in this series.
To be generous, Francouz has been shaky between the pipes. “He’s got to be better,” Bednar said.
You don’t have to be an NHL coach to understand the big problem here. I’d say any time a leaky defense surrenders 19 goals in four games, as the Avalanche have done, your Cup hopes are going to take a hit.
Colorado has lost No. 1 goalie Philipp Grubauer, veteran D-man Erik Johnson and grinder Matt Calvert to injury. Even a trip to Lourdes won’t get them back in the lineup anytime soon.
“They’re not ready. They’re not an option for us … We have what we have,” Bednar said.
With their backs against the bubble, what would be easiest now for the Avs is to look for a way out.