As simple as a bump in the road or does this misstep represent a scenario where there could be genuine cause for concern?
Those appear to be the pressing questions surrounding the Colorado Avalanche after earning a split on home ice against the St. Louis Blues as the Central Division final shifts to Missouri for the next two games, including Game 3 on Saturday night at Enterprise Arena.
Puck-drop is 8 p.m. ET / 7 p.m. CT. The game can be seen on Sportsnet and SN NOW.
Given how dominant the Avalanche were in the series opener – despite needing to secure the 3-2 victory in overtime – some observers figured this would be another one-sided affair, but the Blues had other ideas and they responded accordingly.
In what figures to have all the makings of a heavyweight bout, this left hook caught the Avalanche right on the button and left them a little woozy.
But what are they going to do about it?
For a team that’s gone 5-1 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, one would expect the Avalanche to try to deliver a similar response to the one the Blues came up with in Game 2.
“You haven’t lost yet, so you can’t expect not to get punched in the face in the playoffs, and that’s kind of what happened to us,” Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar told reporters in Denver before the team flew to St. Louis. “At the end of the day, it’s (about) regrouping.”
If the Avalanche are able to regroup on Saturday, you can expect Makar to be among the group of players who come up with a determined effort.
After leading his team in scoring in the opening-round sweep against the Nashville Predators with three goals and 10 points, it’s been a quiet start to this series for Makar.
Makar was noticeable in Game 1, but never really seemed to get going on Thursday, and he’s still looking for his first point of the series.
For a guy who is such a dynamic play driver, it’s been strange to see Makar struggle to get going, but he’s got a good handle on what he needs to do in order to turn things around.
“It’s playoff time, you have to find a way,” said Makar, who led all defencemen in goals with 28 and finished with 86 points in 77 games during the regular season. “For me, I just haven’t had the legs yet. I just have to get back in the groove. I feel like there are a lot of times that I can work myself out of those situations, but I just haven’t been able to the past two games because of a lack of whatever it is – juice or whatnot. A lot of it goes to me, but I give them credit still. They’ve done a good job and you definitely can’t take that away from them.”
Makar is one of the players who opposing coaches have to specifically game plan for and you can be sure the Blues will continue to try to make it difficult on the Avalanche D-man to get going. But history has shown it’s incredibly challenging to contain him for any sustained period of time.
“Every team is going to try to take away time and space on Cale. They’re going to get up and try to get up in his face,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar told reporters. “But he wasn’t moving like he normally moves, either. He wasn’t executing the way he normally (does).
“I don’t know that there’s anything specific besides that, that they’re doing. They’re forechecking him the same way that they’re forechecking all of our other D, they’re playing him a little bit tighter in the offensive zone because they know how dangerous he is up there. So, they’re getting out there quick on them. So, if we’re going to use him as an option, we’ve got to give it to him early.”
This isn’t about one elite player not playing at the incredibly high level he’s established for himself.
Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon has one assist on the power play and linemate Mikko Rantanen is still looking for his first goal of these playoffs – though he has racked up seven assists in six games (including two helpers in two games against the Blues).
“Do you think Mikko is playing his best hockey that you’ve seen him play? OK, well, so that’s it,” said Bednar. “There are things that we show him and talk to him about. He needs to get to the net and shoot the puck more. But, again, it goes back to you’ve got to play your best hockey at the most important time and that’s now.
“He’s got to get going a little bit, you know. We need him to be an impact player. That’s what you need from your players in the playoffs. There’s lots of things he can do a little bit better. You take incremental increases in play in a bunch of different areas and it turns out to be a really good game for him. We know he’s capable of it and he’ll come around. We’ve got a couple of guys here that are going to have to go. This is going to be a tough series.”
This was not Bednar reaching into his bag of motivational tools, nor did he feel it was an opportune time to air out one of his stars publicly.
He was asked a direct question about an important player and he answered honestly, and part of the reason for that is that he expects Rantanen – and others – to be able to find another level sooner than later.
As annoying as it must be for the Avalanche to be under the microscope despite rattling off five consecutive victories before Thursday’s setback, the best way to silence those doubters is to get back to how they played in Game 1 – when they set the tone and dictated the pace of play for a good chunk of the game.
“We’ve done a nice job after responding to losses all year long,” said Bednar. “So, generally when we’ve addressed things as a team, our guys have responded and played well and played hard. It doesn’t always guarantee a win, but our guys have done a nice job of elevating their game after losses and understanding what we did right, what we did wrong, where we need to improve, what we need to keep doing. They’re in tune with it.
"Our philosophy is that you’re not going to win in the playoffs if you don’t bring your best game. Well, everyone that’s watched us play all year, (Thursday) night wasn’t even close (to their best game). So, you can’t expect to go in and play a team like St. Louis, who finished with 100-and-whatever points and think that you’re going to win if you’re not playing your best. That’s how you advance. You play your best hockey throughout the course of a series and hope that your best is better than their best. That’s the simplification of it.”
This race to four wins is about to ramp up and it won’t take long to see which team is going to be ready to take a leg up.
“I feel like it’s pretty black and white. We outplayed them one game and they outplayed us in one,” said Avalanche defenceman Bowen Byram. “There’s no reason to panic. You’re not going to win every game in the playoffs. They’re a good team. They know how to win. They’ve won before.
“It’s just (about) readjusting and then obviously, we’ve got to get back on our horses for next game.”