In a post-season where school has been in session for fan bases in Toronto, Edmonton, Florida and Pittsburgh, the mobile classroom now sets up outside the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas tonight, where two franchises are about to learn what they’re made of out West.
Vegas? They know what they’re all about.
The Golden Knights have been here. They’re battle-tested, and they’ve been to a Stanley Cup Final in recent years. Whatever the opposite of “underachievers” is, that describes a deep and dangerous Golden Knights roster.
Then there is Colorado, a Flavour of the Month team whose time has come to put up or go back to the drawing board.
They said “Uncle” in the bubble last season, playing without a bunch of important players and down to their third-string goalie in Michael Hutchinson. They just couldn’t operate anymore.
This season, however, they’ve got a Vezina candidate (Philipp Grubauer) in their net, and sure, they could use injured Matt Calvert and Erik Johnson, but the two have combined to play just 22 games this season. The Avs have won plenty without them, and their absence is no excuse today, on June 10.
Nazem Kadri? Sorry Mark Scheifele, but that is a self-inflicted wound. It’s part of you and your team’s character.
Winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we’ve learned in Toronto and Edmonton, is somehow different than winning in the regular season. Colorado has coughed up a 2-0 series lead and find themselves on the brink tonight.
“It’s a cliché that the fourth one is the hardest to win, but it is. They have it all on the line … and we have to treat it like a Game 7 too,” said Mattias Janmark, who re-enters the series tonight for Vegas after missing three games.
Janmark joins an established winner in Vegas, but is fresh off the heels of a Cinderella run with Dallas last season. The dual experiences are like two different worlds for a hockey player.
“Our journey last year with Dallas was a little bit different,” he recalled. “We came in with a little more as the underdogs, we had a rough start in the round-robin and a rough series in Round 1 against Calgary. We kind of built off of that.
“We scored at the right time, it felt like, all playoffs long. Whereas this year we have a really confident group in here. This team has played really good all year long, been a top team in the league,” he continued. “We were down 2-0 in this series, and that’s where the confidence comes in. We just went back home and took care of business. Now, we’ve set ourselves up.
“It’s these games — Game 6, Game 7 — where you need to be really confident. Hopefully, we can gain some more confidence today, and close these guys out in Game 6.”
How confident is Colorado?
Well, not confident enough to allow a top player or a coach to speak with the media on Thursday morning.
Shielding your top players from the media at times like this speaks of a team that feels like its top guys can’t handle the introspection; that their big guys are so fragile, a Zoom call eight hours before puck drop could somehow dent their psyche or impinge on their “pregame focus.”
Head coach Jared Bednar had what is believed to be a COVID testing issue and was not able to make the morning skate. No other coach was made available to the media, and the two support players who did speak — Devon Toews and Joonas Donskoi — downplayed his absence.
“There’s nothing to it guys,” Toews told the press. “If we have Jared, we have Jared. If not, we come to the rink prepared to play.”
“We are thinking that he’ll be back tonight, but if not we know what to do,” added Donskoi.
So, in search of insight about what separates teams on a night like tonight, we asked Vegas head coach Peter DeBoer. Thoughtful and relaxed on the morning of a crucial Game 6, DeBoer reached back into a career that has seen both success and sorrow.
“I’ve had the great luxury of working for Lou Lamoriello in New Jersey. Going to a Stanley Cup Final, and watching how he worked, and what was important to him. Doug Wilson (in San Jose), the same. Kelly (McCrimmon) and George (McPhee) here,” began DeBoer. “There’s not one standard way to win, (but) the one consistent is that it’s very hard, and the margins are razor thin. Intangibles are really important.”
He ticked off the grocery list of requirements: “You’ve got to get a belief, you’ve got to get on a roll, you’ve got to stay healthy, you’ve got to win overtime games, you’ve got to get goaltending… I’ve been to two Finals and lost in Game 6. It’s heartbreaking to get that close, go on that big a journey (and lose).
“I look back at those, and the margins between us and the teams we beat in Round 1 or 2 were usually razor thin.”
Those elements are on the carpet tonight, with Vegas at home in perhaps the most momentum-generating arena in our sport, and Colorado trying to figure out how a 2-0 series lead turned into a do-or-die Game 6.
We’ll watch, and we’ll learn.
School, as they say, is in.