When you think of some of the greatest moments in Colorado Avalanche franchise history, you may immediately think of any number of things.
What’s the first to pop into your head?
Perhaps you picture Joe Sakic passing the team’s second Stanley Cup in six years to a much-relieved Ray Bourque as ABC’s Gary Thorne exclaims “after 22 years, RAYMOND BOURQUE!,” as tears well up in both Bourque’s eyes, and probably yours, too.
Maybe it’s Patrick Roy’s head coaching debut, where he attempted to break the glass down and fight Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau at the start of the 2013-14 season, a year in which the Avs would finish with 112 points in the standings. We won’t talk about the playoffs that season, though.
Is it a jersey retirement ceremony you remember best? Or a fight or a goal or perhaps even just a single game. For many, I’d imagine, the greatest moment they remember — at least in recent memory — happened April 7, 2018.
Simply dubbed “Game 82” by Avs fans and pundits, the final game of the 2017-18 regular season was a defining moment in franchise history, and one that some might even call one of the greatest moments in Colorado Avalanche history.
I remember it well — as I’m sure we all do. I was there. Maybe you were too.
The story really was almost too good to be true. I hate to use cliches like “it was a fairytale ending,” or “it was like something out of an Disney movie,” but, really, that might be the only accurate way to describe Game 82.
After an atrocious 2016-17 campaign, one in which we won’t bother dwelling on, Colorado had thrust themselves into a position for a historic turnaround. After recording just 48 points — in what is the worst full-season finish of any NHL team in the post-lockout era — the Avalanche’s 2017-18 season began with feelings of dismissal and contempt, and perhaps rightfully so. Questions of whether the team would repeat it’s ‘16-17 performance or whether the team, and it’s fans, were really in the midst of what could be a long-term slump and a dreaded rebuild period.
The season began with a string of .500 hockey. With a record of 17-16-3 heading out of the December holiday break, the season felt very meh, for lack of a better word.
Then all of the sudden something special happened.
The Avs rattled off 10 wins in a row, going nearly an entire month without losing a game. And then all of the sudden, Colorado was in the playoff conversation for the first time since, really, the 2013-14 season.
Fast forward to Game 82.
The stage was set. The St. Louis Blues came into Pepsi Center in a similar situation as Colorado. If the Blues win, or even lose in overtime, they’d earn the final playoff spot. If the Avs win in regulation, they’d clinch the berth. Winner take all, loser goes home.
It felt very much like a playoff atmosphere, Game 82 did. It was something fans hadn’t experienced in almost exactly four years to the day — 1,438 long days.
The nervous anticipation was palpable throughout Pepsi Center and it’s fully-booked 18,087 seats, though few sat in them during the game, or if they did, they were on the edge of them.
Nathan MacKinnon and Brayden Schenn lined up for the game’s opening puck drop and the game began. A back-and-forth opening frame enters its final minute, as PA announcer Alan Roach’s voice booms one minute remaining, one minute remaining in the first period. Just a few seconds later, a Blake Comeau pass to Matt Nieto is fanned on but slides past the Long Beach native right into the wheelhouse of rookie defenseman Sam Girard, who hammers it past Blues goaltender Jake Allen.
The building erupts in thunderous cheer as Girard delivers an emphatic triple fist pump down on one knee, an appropriate celebration for what was his third goal — and biggest goal — of his season. The pendulum of momentum officially swung towards Colorado as the team headed to the locker room with a 1-nill lead.
Another blast from the blueline, this time by Tyson Barrie, extended the Avalanche’s lead to two. But a coach’s challenge from the St. Louis bench questioned whether or not Barrie kept the puck onside earlier in the play before he scored the goal. A replay of Barrie scooping the puck across the blueline while just still just barely onside replayed from all angles on Pepsi Vision. After what felt like an eternity of a review, it was deemed a good goal and Pepsi Center thundered with its loud goal horn once again.
It was now Colorado’s game to lose, although it felt like there was no chance of that. That is until Jaden Schwartz finally solved Jonathan Bernier to cut Colorado’s lead in half just over halfway through the game. Suddenly the air of confidence in the building was slowly leaking out.
But as it would turn out, that would be the closest the Blues would get.
MacKinnon’s incredible stickhandling and top-corner shot — so typical of MacKinnon — extended the Avs’ lead back to two with just over three minutes to go in second period. MacKinnon’s tame celebration would be harshly juxtaposed by the moment that would occur with just over three minutes to go in the final frame.
With the Blues unable to best Bernier, St. Louis pulled its goaltender Jake Allen in hopes that an extra attacker might close the gap on the Avs’ 3-1 lead.
And that’s when it happened. The moment that we may all look back on as the defining moment of a dynasty that’s unravelling right before our very eyes.
Down an extra attacker and a vacated St. Louis net, Landeskog steals the puck in his own zone, turns around at the halfwall, takes three short strides and fires into the empty net from 135 feet away, all but sealing the fate of the Blues’ season, while thrusting his own team into its storybook ending.
As the Pepsi Center horn erupted again, MacKinnon leaps into the arms of his captain, knocking him down, while Patrik Nemeth, Mark Barberio and Mikko Rantanen follow suit by jumping onto the impromptu celebratory dogpile. On the Avs bench, the rest of the team engages in hugs and high-fives of their own, some jumping up and down in celebration, while head coach Jared Bednar visibly slumps his shoulders in relief.
There was still 3:23 left on the game clock, but that mattered very little. The game was really over after that dogpile. And in one of the most improbable comeback stories in recent memory in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche improved from 48 points to 95 points, nearly doubling their prior season’s totals. The Avs also got their retribution against Blues head coach Mike Yeo, who happened to be the former bench boss of that very same Minnesota Wild team that shattered the Avs hopes in Game 7 of the 2014 playoffs.
But most importantly, the Avs were going to the playoffs, and a city and a fanbase got its team back.
It was an incredible moment and I still get chills remembering that night at Pepsi Center. I remember the dogpile most vividly. The noise inside The Can, my eyes that welled up, the 18,000-plus who had no prior relationship with each other but had suddenly become best friends. I remember the locker room after the game. I remember talking to an emotional Mark Barberio, who talked about how that year’s team was the tightest-knit he’d ever played with.
“I’ve been a part of some really good locker rooms, but there’s something about this group, we really care for one another. I think you can tell,” he smiled as he looked around the room.
I asked him to comment on the fans and the incredible atmosphere of Game 82.
“The fans were incredible. When we came out, right from the start, the energy that they brought us, we felt it. I was getting goosebumps even towards the end of the game and even after the game when they gave us that ovation. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve had in hockey so far,” Barberio told me.
“We’re just trying to make this city proud.”
And that they did. They made us all proud. Game 82 was the start of what may very well be one of the best stretches in franchise history. The team found an identity, a core group of players, a fearless head coach to lead them for years to come. It all culminated in Game 82. That game, those moments, the dogpile — it all felt like the start of something special.
It was the start of something special.