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ST. LOUIS – Every arena has a distinct smell when you walk into it. As I worked my way through the tunnels of Enterprise Center tonight, I couldn’t escape the smell of burnt popcorn. The closer I got to the Avalanche locker room in the moments following their 4-3 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues, the smell dissipated.
There were sounds of joy and raucous laughter emanating from the area where the victors celebrated and then passing through the double doors towards Colorado’s portion of the building, I was met with dead silence.
The locker room experience following an NHL game is always a brisk affair, an exercise in efficiency as you seek soundbites from the rapidly dwindling number of players available to you. Tonight the visitor’s locker room sported an angry group of Avalanche players as gear was being slammed into bags as the team had little time to waste in heading for the airport.
Written on the whiteboard wasn’t a remnant of strategies from the just-completed game. Instead, it simply read “bus ASAP” but the real message was clear: Let’s get the hell out of here.
And it was with a swiftness the Avalanche players dispatched of their gear and gave way to the standard postgame with the coach. Only with him came the return of a distinct smell.
It was the smell of scorched earth.
Jared Bednar has been an exceptionally patient man with the media in his time leading this franchise. He was calm throughout an embarrassing 48-point campaign and stuck to his demeanor even when his team made an unexpected run to the postseason tonight.
But tonight, in his own relatively calm way, Bednar finally lost his trademark cool.
“We’re on a power play, we’ve got our best players on the ice on a four on three power play and we give up a breakaway,” Bednar said, describing the sequence leading to Ryan O’Reilly’s short-handed winner in overtime. “It should be us putting a dagger through them there and getting two points. It has to be. They have to be better than that. The decision we make with the puck there…it cost us the game. That’s it.”
They have to be better than that.
Bednar quickly moved on and addressed the other issues we tossed his way but those words hung in the air. He certainly wasn’t shy about criticizing his team throughout but did it in his standard diplomatic way, referring frequently to “passengers.” That’s always been Bednar’s favorite word to describe guys who weren’t getting the job done.
“We had a handful of guys I really liked and we had some other guys that weren’t as good,” he said. “If you’re going to win on a nightly basis, we need everyone playing well and we didn’t have that tonight.”
Win on a nightly basis.
Coming into the season, it was another “prove it” kind of season for both the Avalanche and Bednar. The organization quietly extended his contract last year, avoiding the awkwardness of a lame-duck coach but being careful not to commit too many years to him. Everyone had to accomplish what they did last year, minimum, or else jobs were in question.
The Avalanche have shown themselves to be a step above last year’s squad but they aren’t satisfied. They want more and they’re hungry. But they aren’t called growing pains because they’re easy.
Tonight, Bednar let his team know simply repeating last year’s success was not good enough. He wants more and he expects more. He’s demanding more. Falling to 1-6 in overtime this year was not an acceptable outcome in his mind. Salvaging a point simply wasn’t good enough, not when the game was there for the taking and this youthful group let another point slip away from them.
“It’s a good point,” Bednar allowed.” You’re trailing and I didn’t think we were great and our execution wasn’t great but we worked and did some good things as well so to get a point is great.”
He was just starting to get to his real point.
“But when you’re in a situation where you got a guy without a stick in overtime and you’re playing in the offensive zone and you got the best guys on the ice and you get a power play call on it. You’ve got to finish it. You’ve got to finish it off. These points are important. We’ve had some overtime games that weren’t great and we have some we’re not thinking clearly. We’re not making the right decisions out there in some of these instances and it’s costing us points. I look at this one like we left one on the table.”
You’ve got to finish it.
This wasn’t sugar-coated. This wasn’t subtle. Bednar took to the postgame scrum to let his players, his best players at that, know he demands more of them than simply scraping points against inferior opponents. If the Avalanche is serious about having aspirations beyond simply qualifying for the postseason, nights like tonight have to stop and they have to begin to find their way to both points available to them.
Then, he was gone and the team was to the airport and back on their team charter to Denver to prepare for tomorrow night’s game against the Dallas Stars.
If the Avalanche is ever going to fully grow up and realize their immense potential to accomplish something special, we may look back at tonight as the night where getting by stopped being acceptable. The night where Colorado’s best players stopped being a fun story and started being one of the best teams.
Or maybe it’s just a blip on the radar, another angry coach after a predictably familiar loss as his team works their way to nothing particularly notable.
Either way, I’ll grab the popcorn.