There’s something specific that struck me about the way Edmonton Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft referenced where the team was at when he took over and how it took a full-team effort to get the club to the Western Conference Final against the Colorado Avalanche.
This was on media day, before the 14-goal Game 1. Before the Pavel Francouz shutout in Game 2. Before the poorly played home Game 3. Before the conclusion of the sweep at the hands of the much better and healthier Colorado Avalanche in Game 4.
“I think you have to go through some of the scars in order to see some growth. It’s not always fun but at some point, the fabric of your team gets tested,” Woodcroft said. “The messages we give to our team is the old saying that the road to success is paved with mistakes well handled, and for us that is something that we really look to capitalize on… to seize on those, and make sure that you’re highlighting them and learning from [them].”
What stood out to me in that moment was how to manage mistakes in the game of hockey, which as I’ve said is certainly a game of mistakes. It’s chess on ice, with vulcanized rubber pucks and machismo—if we’re talking solely about the NHL product. It can be as wide open as either team allows and as tight and unrelenting as either squad decides.
Hockey is a place where mistakes are the difference in wins and losses, in goals and saves.
Mistakes well-handled is exactly how the Oilers survived a grueling first-round series against the Los Angeles Kings and the wild, shootout slugfest that was the second-round matchup with the Calgary Flames.
Edmonton didn’t necessarily eliminate the mistakes in their game, but they did respond to and overcome them.
And the more I’ve thought about that comment from Woodcroft, the more I’ve seen it as a sort of ethos of the Colorado Avalanche. This was a team that had gone from worst of the worst in 2016-17 to five-straight playoff appearances under head coach Jared Bednar.
This was a team that lost in the second round three years in a row, and were certainly sick of talking about that 100-pound yeti in the room as the round approached and, luckily for them, disappeared in the rearview mirror of the Avalanche bus.
This was a team that went without superstar turned super Saiyan Nazem Kadri last year because he was suspended.
This was a team where Nathan MacKinnon, upon bowing out of last year’s postseason, said, “I’m going into my ninth year next year and haven’t won shit.”
It was the worst of times, at times.
This season could have been like any of the others. It could have been yet another time where the adversity, the challenges, the goals against, the missed calls and the injuries all culminated in failure.
But they didn’t.
The Avalanche were able to handle the mistakes well. There was a drive and a purpose and a singular belief across the board, the likes of which I haven’t seen with this group, either during my time with the organization or in the various years since.
I asked Bednar how impressed he was with the core group that’s still here, the one he entered the league coaching. His answer highlighted exactly what’s going on, both behind the scenes and before our very eyes.
“Really impressed. Hard not to be. From Day 1 of training camp, the way our guys have handled themselves, I feel like there’s always been a bigger focus than just winning regular-season hockey games. More so than years past, and I think that’s just experience—guys learning what it takes to win, myself included,” he said upon landing in Denver on Tuesday. “I think our whole group, we’ve kind of had the bigger picture in mind from Day 1, and they’ve continued to impress me throughout the playoffs in the way they’ve handled adversity, ups and downs, ebbs and flows of a series and keep finding a way to win hockey games and close series out.”
Upon returning from Edmonton, both Cale Makar and Gabriel Landeskog reiterated that winning was nice but the ultimate goal has yet to be accomplished.
“Obviously, you have to be excited, but at the same time, the task is still not done,” Makar said.
Sure, there was some celebration on having gone further than any recent Avalanche iteration before them. This franchise hasn’t been in the Stanley Cup Final since it won in 2001.
But there’s only one thing that matters to them, and they won’t enjoy anything about what they’ve done until the final whistle blows.
“To me, it’s just another step,” Bednar said following practice on Thursday. “I’m excited for our team and everything we’ve accomplished. I’m proud of it. But that’s not the end goal. We still have work to do. That’s my approach. We’ll breathe when it’s over.”
There’s a belief here with the Colorado Avalanche, and it goes beyond thought. It has been embodied by the players, particularly the leadership group. It permeates their actions, their conversations, and you can see it in the way they conduct themselves.
“It’s just a constant mindset, I think,” said Landeskog. “Trusting what we’re doing, trusting in each other and in your abilities out there on the ice, that’s what we have to do every single day. It’s not something that comes game time, all of the sudden you start believing. Every day, it’s your mindset away from the rink. It’s your mindset watching video and trying to get better, and it’s been something we’ve worked on all season. So we’re looking to continue it.”
It also means that, when the Colorado Avalanche is down in the third period or can’t close out the St. Louis Blues in Game 5, there’s no room to allow the negative creep to come in. There’s no door for the ‘oh no, what if we can’t do it’ thoughts to permeate.
This is a team that had more comeback wins than most other teams in the regular season and overcame deficits in all three postseason elimination games to move on. This is a team that somehow decided there’s no quit, never ever. It’s a baby steps kind of process, but from where the club finished last year to this very day, things are massively different.
“It just shows our resiliency in that room, and we’ve talked about it before but you work throughout the whole regular season [for that]. Obviously, you put in a lot of work to get better as a team but also to prepare yourself for situations like [that],” Landeskog said. “That’s why it’s important throughout the year that you don’t take any nights off. Even if you’re down in the third period, you’re still giving it a go. I think that’s important.
“Those are all learning lessons that you need at this time of year, and [we’re] a confident group. We said before that third period [in Game 4], ‘we’ve done it before. We’ve done it numerous times and whether it’s at home or on the road, we’ve done it.’
Now they lie in wait, scheming, planning, practicing, visualizing the success at the other end of one final best-of-7 series. The last set of games in the 2021-22 NHL season.
They must wait and see who they’ll face; either the young and fast New York Rangers or the wily and experienced two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Neither should be a walk in the park, but both may not realize exactly what waits for them on the far side of the Eastern Conference Final.
There’s an incredible belief that this is Colorado’s time, and very little has challenged that lately.