We can't just blame the final nail for sealing us into a coffin that we've been building all year.
Let's take a look back at the season. After a decent start in October (we had a nice little 5 game winning streak and ended up going 7-4-0 in that month), we went 4-8-1 in November. The team looked leaderless and had some major struggles especially on home ice, but after Hejduk was named Captain on Nov. 14th, the problem slowly started to correct itself. Our December was awesome - we collected 20 points in 15 games - but it was negated by our only so-so 5-6-1 January. We surged again in February (7-3-2), but by the time we got to March, our up-and-down record meant we were a bubble team. The Avs have put up quite a fight so far this month, but it's starting to look like they've run out of gas. We're not eliminated yet, but with that loss on Monday, our playoff destiny is out of our hands. Even if we win out, we're still going to have to catch some breaks from the Pacific to make it in, and our chances aren't looking so great right now.
The last three games have been frustrating for sure. They were the biggest of the season, and the Avs decided to either not show up or make stupid decisions during them that cost them critical points. However, the only reason these games mean so much right now is because we messed up earlier in the season. All those nights where we "didn't start on time" or "didn't play a full 60 minutes" have come back to haunt us. Even though we're playing pretty good hockey right now and just coming up a little short, we're still watching our season slowly slip away because we didn't put the games away that we needed to earlier in the year. When your hot streaks are simply making up for your cold ones instead of pushing you ahead in the standings, this is what's going to happen. We've set ourselves up to fail, not with these past 3 games, but with our inconsistent play all year.
However, with that said, we're still a rebuilding team. We aren't in "win now" mode - we're more concerned with the future than the present. All you can ask from a team like that is for progress. After the collapse last year, the benchmark for 2011-12 was pretty low. Luckily, those expectations have been completely blown out of the water.
Even if we only get 4 of the remaining 8 points, we'll hit the 90pt mark, an increase of +22 over last year's 68. Right now, our team's goal differential is only -6 (16th in the league), which just a tad better than -61. We're still right in the thick of the playoff battle and playing meaningful hockey in March and April instead of arguing about 18-year-olds since February. Our roster has been improved since the beginning of the year, we're running something that looks dangerously like a system, and our bright, young talent is starting to come together and play like a team. We've gone from a very below-average club to a slightly above average one in the course of 12 months. If that's not progress, I don't know what is.
However, it's not just our progress that has made this year special; it's the obstacles we've overcome to make it this far. This team still has some major issues, but they somehow found a way to push through them. That alone speaks volumes about this group of players. If they can score 90 points while going through all of this, just imagine where they'll be when some of these flaws start to disappear:
- Youth: We're basically icing a glorified college team in the NHL and expecting it to work. Almost all of our talent is years away from its prime, and most are still learning what it takes to compete at the pro level. Typically, young players are somewhat sheltered for their first few years, but since nearly everyone on our team is a young player, there's no one left to shelter them. Instead, our guys are working through their issues while facing off against the best hockey players in the world.
- Lack of veteran presence: Because we're so young, there's a lot that our players still have to learn. Who's teaching them? Beyond Hejduk and Jiggy, we don't have any vets in the room. Instead, our team is learning the hard way by making tons of mistakes and figuring out how to fix them on the fly.
- Inconsistency: Hockey is a cyclical game - every team is going to have their ups and downs. However, the Avs' cycles seem to be a little crazier than most. For example, we were the first team in 25 games to beat Detroit in regulation at the Joe (and it was on the second of a back-to-back!), but we still got shut out by the Blue Jackets two games later. We also were undefeated on the road to start the year, but we couldn't win at home. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it. You just never know if good Avs or the crappy ones are going to show up on any given night.
- Incomplete roster: Unlike the "win now" teams, some of our most critical positions haven't been addressed yet. We don't have a top defensive pair, and up until recently, our depth at wing was laughable. When you're missing key players like that, everyone on the team has to up their game to compensate.
- Lack of Elite Talent: We're running off an offense/defense/goaltending by committee system. Our leading scorer has 55 points (4th lowest among team leaders in the league), leading goal scorer has 22 (2nd lowest), our combined average GAA is 2.47 and Sv% is .916 (13th and 11th), and the defenseman with the most ice time (EJ) is -6 and has a .348 PPG average (20th and 21st). Basically, in comparison to every other team's top talent, ours is mediocre at best right now. All of our "stars" are either before or after their prime, so we don't have a player that can consistently steal games on talent alone. Every point we get has to be earned as a team.
- Best players not showing up: As much as I love O'Reilly, there is no way he should be a leading scorer on a team with Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Milan Hejduk on the roster. Stastny decided to show after the trade deadline, but Duchene and Hejduk have been seemingly absent all year. There were times when all of our offense was concentrated to the line of O'Reilly, Landeskog, and whoever they drug along for the ride that night. It's really hard to win games when only two of your top players decide to show up for the full season.
- Inexperienced Coaching staff: Our entire behind-the-bench coaching staff boast a grand total of 7 years of NHL experience. Sacco & Co. are learning on the fly just as much as the players are. They've finally managed to convince the team to buy into a system, but there are times when they've been clearly out-strategized this year.
- Tough Conference: It's harder to play our west. Not only is the style of play more physical and defensive, but the battles at the end of the year are always more intense. We went 13-4-1 against Eastern teams this year, and our 86 points would have us sitting cozily in 8th if we were in that conference. Instead, we're in a crazy six-way bubble battle scrapping for dear life every night.
- Horrendous Divisional Record: With two games left, we're sitting at 7-13-2, but through the middle of February, we were 2-13-1. Even if we win our next two games, we'll come away with only half of our possible divisional points... and our division (besides Vancouver) isn't exactly all that strong.