After a white-hot start that saw the Colorado Avalanche as one of hockey's best home teams through the end of November, their current five-game homestand has brought back memories last year's 60-loss team, which began its death spiral with a 0-4-1 five-game homestand last December. Following a 7-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, things are starting to feel eerily similar to the nightmare everyone has tried so hard to move on from this year.
At 1-3-0 following tonight's blowout loss, the Avs only have one opportunity left to salvage points from this stretch before heading into a portion of the schedule that sees them take on some of the best teams the east has to offer. While Colorado's overall record is superior at the same point to last year's team, that reality isn't good enough for a team striving for more than that.
"Yeah, we're over .500, but we're out of the playoff picture," defenseman and alternate captain Erik Johnson said. "I don't really give a shit if we're better than we were at this time last year. We gave them everything they got tonight. We turned the puck over, we were sloppy and there's no excuse. They played a back-to-back tonight, got in at probably 2 in the morning and we were rested and ready to go, and we laid an egg. It's unacceptable."
Johnson's strong words were backed up throughout a frustrated and embarrassed locker room.
"It was there for us," defenseman Tyson Barrie said. "It was frustrating. We came out in the third, it got away from us and we embarrassed ourselves and let them run away with it. It's not the kind of effort we want at home. We played two good periods but it's not good enough and we'll be ready for the next one."
As the Avalanche entered the third period down 4-2, they did so despite dictating the majority of the pace of play throughout the night, leading throughout in shots on goal, shot attempts, and scoring chances. The game started with backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier in the net but he was pulled after giving up four goals on just nine shots, undoing all of the positive processes the rest of the team was working on. Barrie was hesitant to credit the Stars, however, and preferred to look inwards for the problems on the night.
"I thought we played a decent two periods and we were down two," Barrie stated. "We were positive in here after the second period and we knew we could come back and win. We just didn't do it."
Frustration evident as he spoke, Barrie continued: "It's not rocket science. We know what we have to do. We did it for spurts tonight and we didn't do it for spurts and it cost us. Buffalo is going to be a hungry team coming in and we know that so we'll be ready for them. We need to be better at home."
Another slow start set the Avalanche back as they built a decent lead in shots but egregious mistakes cost them dearly, beginning with Matt Nieto's telegraphed pass to Johnson that was intercepted by Stars forward Tyler Seguin. Seguin came in alone on a breakaway and beat Bernier with ease, making it 1-0. A late deflection by Seguin put the Stars up 2-0 and despite outshooting Dallas 11-5, the Avs trailed 2-0 at the first intermission.
"It's frustrating because up until the last two or three games, our starts have been what's really good for us at home," Barrie said. "It's just energy. We need the energy. We need to come out and not wade into the game, even give teams a chance to stick around. We have a good enough team in here that if we come out with energy and play hard we can put teams away early."
Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen combined for the kind of goal we've come to expect from Colorado's dynamic duo and got them back into the game early in the second period but two goals in 1:04 for the Stars ended Bernier's night prematurely and created a three-goal deficit for the Avs. They continued plugging away and Blake Comeau's second-period goal cut it to 4-2 and breathed life into a potential comeback as the Avs were still pacing play. The Avs felt they were playing the right way but not being rewarded for it and if they just kept at it, the third period would see good things.
"Exactly," Barrie said about the process versus results conversation. "We're down 4-2 after the second but I'm not sure it was a 4-2 game. We obviously let it get away from us which is disappointing."
Ultimately, the Avalanche collapsed in the third and gave the game away to a division opponent they had beaten in their previous two tries.
"That's hockey," Barrie admitted. "You're going to play good hockey some nights and not get some results and other nights you'll play bad and get wins. I think if you do it right the majority of the time, it's going to even out for you."
As Colorado's process has improved recently, the results have begun trending in the wrong direction again. It's a trend the team eagerly looks to swing back in the right direction with hapless Buffalo coming to Denver in two days.
For a team without very realistic playoff hopes to begin with this season, Tuesday's game against the Sabres might be as close as this club gets to a "must-win" this season.