DENVER (AP) – Ryan O’Reilly stared at the floor in front of his locker for quite some time after a Game 7 overtime loss to Minnesota.
His skates were still laced. His uniform was still on.
“We could’ve done a lot better,” the Colorado Avalanche forward finally said.
For now, it’s just too soon for the Avs to think about all they’ve accomplished this season. It’s clouded by being eliminated at home in the first round.
Maybe by next week – definitely by the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs – they’ll reflect on this: It was quite a year in Patrick Roy’s debut behind the bench. The Avs tied a franchise record for wins in a season after finishing last in the Western Conference last year and also captured a surprise division title.
But the reality is the Wild are moving on to play the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, while the Avs figure out just how this series suddenly went sideways.
“It’s an emptiness you really don’t know how to handle,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said.
Roy didn’t wander into the dressing room after Wednesday’s loss. Never does. He’s given them their space all season.
The Avs have quickly taken on the fiery personality of the Hall of Fame goaltender turned coach. He made this a partnership with them and they instantly bought in.
Started from the first game of the season, too, when Roy lost his cool and yelled at Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau, pounding on the glass partition separating the benches until it tipped. That was after a 6-1 win, too.
Roy’s message resonated: The Avalanche were going to play with passion. They even adopted the slogan “Why not us?” – a theme they put on hats and shirts and threw around when times got tough.
“As much as we were dreaming of it being possible to win the Stanley Cup, we knew it would be tough for us,” Roy said. “We’re not there yet. It’s hard to say that, but it’s a fact.”
This once downtrodden organization, though, is on the right track again. Roy had a calming influence with his youthful team, knowing when to push their buttons and when to let them figure things out. He guided them to a Central Division title and 52 wins, which ties the mark Roy and his squad had in 2000-01 when they won the Stanley Cup.
Roy was a little unorthodox in his approach, pulling his goalie if his team was trailing whenever it felt right, whether it was with two minutes remaining or three or even four. A lot of times, it worked out, including twice in the Wild series.
“He’s gutsy that way and trusts his guts,” Maxime Talbot said of Roy. “It’s nice to have that behind you, someone who’s going to make the move to give us a chance.”
The Avs had a dozen players making their postseason debut. What’s more, they were without John Mitchell (head) for the entire series, top defenseman Tyson Barrie for part of it after a knee-to-knee hit from Matt Cooke in Game 3 – Cooke drew a seven-game suspension – and only got top scorer Matt Duchene back for the final two games. Another defenseman, Jan Hejda, played with a broken thumb that made it difficult for him to hold on to his stick.
Had they all been healthy, maybe it could’ve made a difference in a grinding series that included four overtime games.
“These are not the excuses we want to use,” Roy said. “We always found a way to go through adversity in a great way.”
Semyon Varlamov underwent quite a transformation this season under Roy and goaltender coach Francois Allaire. Varly finished with a franchise-best 41 wins in the regular season, breaking the record held by Roy. It also led the league.
For that, Varlamov is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, given to the NHL’s top goaltender. A small consolation in a season that ended so bitterly. The Avs led four different times in Game 7, only to surrender the lead and set the stage for Nino Niederreiter‘s OT winner.
“We started the season well and played well all season long,” Varlamov said. “But no one wants to lose in the first round.”
Rookie Nathan MacKinnon took the loss particularly hard. Still, it was a stellar postseason for the 18-year-old as he scored twice and dished out eight assists.
“We definitely have some regrets going into the summer,” said MacKinnon, who led all rookies in the regular season with 63 points. “It’s going to be tough.”
– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
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