UNDER FURTHER REVEIW – ‘I’ word threatens to doom Avs’ Stanley Cup defense

It’s still a bit early to hit the panic button concerning the wounded defending Stanley Cup champion Avalanche.

But it’s definitely not too soon to cross your fingers, rub that lucky rabbit’s foot or whatever you do to try to influence an outcome in the desired positive way.

Somebody has to do something to reverse the terrible misfortune that threatens to doom Colorado’s title defense.

The makeshift Avs played their 41st game of this season Saturday night, and despite missing a handful of key players from last season’s title-winning club, routed the Ottawa Senators 7-0.

Their second victory in the last nine games left them with a 21-17-3 record—barely above .500—good for 45 points in the standings.  

Halfway through the encore to an exhilarating run to the National Hockey League’s prized possession, they were seven points behind the third and final playoff qualifier in the Central Division, and six points out of the Western Conference Wild Card race.   

By comparison, at last season’s midpoint the Avs were 30-8-3, had won eight straight on their way to 10 in a row, and ranked second in the whole league with 63 points.

Only the Eastern Conference’s Florida Panthers topped Colorado, with 65—and they’d played three more games.

The difference this year can be explained in one word: injuries.

Captain Gabriel Landeskog (knee surgery) is yet to skate in a game. 

Valeri Nischuskin, whom the Avs locked up in the offseason with an eight-year, $49 million contract, is out for the second time with a bum ankle.  

Nichuskin started hot—seven goals and six assists in the Avs first seven games—then was sidelined until December 9.  He returned and played eight games, with no goals and four assists, then went back on the shelf.

Nathan McKinnon, one of the best players in hockey, has missed 11 games; Josh Manson 20, Darren Helm 36, Evan Rodrigues 11, Bowen Byram 31 and Nichuskin 26.

Through 41 games, 41 players had seen ice time for the Avs. That’s between eight and 12 more than any of the teams ahead of the Avs in the playoff race.

Besides the debilitating absences caused by the “I” word, there’s another toll—the burden the survivors must carry.

Norris Trophy-winner Cale Makar was leading the league in average ice time per game, and eight others were playing more than 20 minutes each night. Makar, Mikko Rantanen, J.T. Compher, Alex Newhook, Logan O’Connor and Erik Johnson all had played in every game.  

If there’s any good, or at least hopeful, news in this situation, it’s that Colorado was the last team to reach its halfway point. Most teams had played 43 or 44 games by the time the Avs reached 41.

That means there’s still time, though the injured had better return soon—and stay healthy thereafter. If they do, the Avs would become the team no other wants to play.

But what if they don’t?

It wouldn’t be the first time the defending Cup champs failed to defend. It’s happened on five occasions since the NHL grew beyond the original six.

The first two times were technicalities. The Maple Leafs in 1967-68 and the Canadiens in 1969-70 both won enough games those years to make the postseason. But expansion and realignment left them in the wrong division, behind teams with better records but with more points than qualifiers in the other bracket.

The New Jersey Devils (who relocated from Denver after the 1981-82 season) won it all in 1995 but missed the playoffs in their defense season (’95-’96) with a 37-33-12 record. (The Avalanche won it in ‘96, their first season after moving to Denver from Quebec.)

In 2006-07 and 2014-15 not even 40 victories and a bunch of ties were enough for the Carolina Hurricanes or Los Angeles Kings, respectively.  The Kings had 95 points in ’14-’15 but finished fourth in the Pacific Division. That spring, former Avalanche coach Joel Quennville led the Chicago Blackhawks to their second Cup in three seasons.

What will it take for the Avs to avoid joining that ignominious list?

Last season it took a minimum of 97 points to get into the postseason.  All but three qualifiers reached triple digits.

So, I’d say the Avs need about 10 more points in their last 41 games than they produced in the first 41. That translates to a few more wins and a few more ties, both doable—especially if the injuries subside.

Heading into their second half, more than a third of the Avs’ remaining games, 15 to be exact, are head-to-head with teams ahead of them in the Western Conference.

Cross your fingers.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.