By Joan Niesen
DENVER -- If this were another sport, the message might not have been so crudely direct.
If this were, say, football, and the coach were to start talking about balls, plural, one would think he was perhaps referring to the ones that go between the uprights.
This is hockey, though. Hockey with a puck, and when Patrick Roy started talking about balls on Friday, well, there was no ambiguity. He meant gonads, and you know what? If that’s not exactly proper, well, he doesn’t really give a flying you-know-what.
"Now it's time for,” the Avalanche coach began on Friday, “pardon my words, to put our balls on the table."
It’s an image, certainly, but what image? For another team, Roy’s quip might have been a call for more bark, more bite. It might have been a plea to shove and scratch, to play more like the Wild did in Minnesota, where they won the past two games to even the series and took out one of the Avs' key players, defenseman Tyson Barrie, for the duration.
For the Avalanche, though, it meant something utterly different.
For the Avalanche, who defeated the Wild 4-3 in overtime Saturday, balls on the table has more to do with gambling than it does with brawling. The Avalanche trade in risk, in guts, in, well, balls, and against Minnesota, that showed.
With just more than 11 minutes remaining in Game 5 and the Avs down 3-2, a rare moment of quiet enveloped the Pepsi Center. “Balls on the table!” one fan yelled from the upper deck, perhaps trying to drum up a new rallying cry, except, of course, that it was just a bit too early. There was too much hockey left to play, and it wasn’t quite time for the Avalanche to show its hand. Wait, wait, wait. Wait until the four-minute mark, or perhaps a few seconds later, or just a bit longer.
Finally, with 2:25 left, risk prevailed. Coulda been sooner, woulda been sooner, except for a penalty that left Colorado shorthanded until that very moment. Then, it went like clockwork. Gabriel Landeskog emerges from penalty box, Semyon Varlamov retreats to bench, goalie pulled… you know the rest. P.A. Parenteau scored to tie the game, overtime ensued, and then Calder Trophy favorite Nathan MacKinnon sent fans home happy after just three minutes of free hockey.
It was neat, tidy and utterly fueled by the risk that’s come to mark this Colorado team on its march from nearly the NHL's worst to first in the Central Division.
“We believed, and even when we got that penalty with four minutes left – definitely a tough one – I think it was important for us to believe and stay confident,” MacKinnon said. “We’re a very calm group. We kind of just stuck with the game plan.”
MacKinnon’s voice was even, measured, despite the smile creeping across his face. It was reminiscent of Roy on Friday, when he too embodied calm as he addressed the series and its future. Landeskog, too – not an ounce of bluster or concern about him. It’s eerie, almost, this team-wide poker face. The Avs gamble and they do it with grace. Just try to call their bluff.
And do they ever surprise themselves, with doses of luck and talent and a certain je ne sais quoi?
“We do,” MacKinnon said. And then he paused. “We do and we don’t.” Poker face, still.
“We don’t want to be this emotional roller coaster,” he continued. “Fans really sweated this one out tonight. … It’s definitely pretty cool that we get to come back, but we want to hold the lead and move on.”
Well, of course, but when last-second comebacks are the currency in which you make your millions, life could be worse.
“The way Patrick instills (positive thinking) in us all season long, the way he, whether we have a good game or a bad game… he’s still positive, and that rubs off on us,” Landeskog said. “It’s the playoffs. It’s going to be a lot of ups and downs. It’s tough. Certainly in a game like this, you have to regroup on the bench, refocus, and that’s what we do.”
It sounds like something out of a self-help manual, some mumbo-jumbo about thinking positive and remaining calm and all the things that tend to evaporate with a game on the line in its final seconds. Except, somehow, it works, and it’s all tied together, the brains and the guts that are this team.
The balls are certainly on tables, the pucks in the net, and the Avalanche in as good a position as any to keep on gambling.