Sunday, April 27, 2014

What We Waited For

I have been in a weird place lately... weird as in bad, but I think the light at the end of the tunnel is getting bigger and brighter and things are going to be okay. I'm not going to go into details because it's hard to talk about, but just suffice to say it really sucks when you find out people you deeply care about think of you as expendable.

Instead, I am going to talk about something that unfailingly makes me happy, something that time and time again has pulled me out of dark black holes of depression, something I can and have been able to count on to be there for me when no one else is: my beloved team. The Colorado Avalanche are in the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and have a real shot at advancing to the second round for the first time since 2008, and the ride has been heart attack-inducing and glorious.

When they made the playoffs this year, I bought tickets. For the first time, my team was making the playoffs at the same time I had a job and (marginally) expendable income to drop on some playoff tickets. I had never been to a playoff game before. I do not know precisely how expensive tickets were back in the glory days of Sakic and Roy as players (instead of Sakic and Roy as GM and coach), but probably they were exorbitantly priced due to the all-star caliber of that team. They made the playoffs for ten straight seasons, winning the Cup twice in that time. This was the time period where I became a fan, and back then it was easy to love them because they did not often let us down.

It's been different, since I moved back from college and fell deep in love with them again. They have not been so easy to love. They've had some growing pains, some rebuilding. Some utter atrociousness. I suffered through a season where they had two ten game losing streaks in a row, separated only by a win over St. Louis. That season ended up a wash - the draft pick we got out of it was Gabriel Landeskog, our current captain. Last season we finished 29th in the league and won the draft lottery and picked Nathan MacKinnon first overall, which is turning out to be one of the best decisions this franchise has ever made. These were building blocks being laid, and once we finally went out and got ourselves a real coach - Patrick Roy, who needs no introduction - the stage was set for something big to start happening.

And that's where we are now. It has been ridiculous to watch, unbelievably awesome, a turnaround I would never have imagined possible. When this season started, all I dreamed about was finally making it back to the playoffs. Everything they've done after clinching that has exceeded anyone's expectations. We won our division - granted, with help, it wouldn't have happened if St. Louis hadn't gone out and lost the division by losing six straight at the end of the year. We got home ice advantage for the playoffs. We finished third in the entire league. After only Anaheim and Boston. We went from 29th to 3rd.

So when it was time to buy playoff tickets, I did not hesitate. I was not going to miss this. I had never gone before, but this team that I was watching now? It was different. I knew them. I loved them. I'd suffered through some low, bleak times with them, and I was finally getting the chance to be there for some good times.

This is where I sat for game one.

This was the best game I've ever been to. There were great goals and it had a nail-biting finish - they were down 3-4 at the end of regulation, but with 13.4 seconds left, Paul Stastny scored to tie it, and the building went ballistic. Then, halfway through the first overtime, Stastny scored again for the win, and the roof flew off. I've never been in an environment like that, with so many ecstatic people in one place. I've never been that deliriously happy over a sports game. I've never screamed that much over a sports game, or had so many negative feelings about one only to be proven wrong, in the end, at the last second. I jumped around and flailed my white pom pom around with the rest of them, completely without irony. I went to work the next day hoarse and exhausted.

This is where I sat for game 2.

This experience was much more surreal. I have never sat this close at a real game before, a game that counted. I would never have imagined my first time sitting on the glass at an NHL game would be in the playoffs. It felt strange the whole game, like it was a dream, or just a practice or something - I'm used to seeing them that close up during practices and game warm-ups, but not for anything more than that. I only got to actually see about half the game, since the other end of the rink was obscured by the curve of the glass, and leaning forward didn't always help that. But it was an awesome, incredible experience to be that close to them, to see their faces, to hear them talking to each other.

The best part was that I was surrounded by other lady fans who also bought single tickets to go on their own. I was in good company.

Games three and four were in Minnesota and were less than fantastic. Actually, they were awful, the Avs losing them both, looking lifeless and like another team for the entirety of both. In game 4 they had only 12 shots on net the entire game. It was enraging, watching these strangers practically ruin the progress they had made so far in the series. It was tied 2 games to 2 going into game 5 last night.

And last night it was an almost identical game to game 1. Down by one near the end of regulation, tying it, then winning in overtime. There is a reason fans call them the Cardiac Kids.

This isn't technically a "Cinderella" run - they did win their division, even if it was by default, and so they're the higher seed. But it still feels like it is one. It doesn't feel like this should be happening. I'm still afraid it's all a fluke, that they'll show their true colors next season when they turn out to be as average as they were all those years under Joe Sacco. I want to believe that won't happen - and I don't honestly think it will, I think things are different now. But it's hard to know. We could end up falling hard back to earth. I do trust that our management is much more competent than it used to be, so if there are issues that arise, I believe the proper steps will be taken to remedy them.

Whatever happens in the future, though: I have this series. I have those two playoff games. I have the fact that I saw Nathan MacKinnon be amazing in his first two NHL playoff games ever. Actually, I was there for the first two playoff games of several different players' careers - so many of them had never been before, so I love that I share that mutual first with them. Whatever happens, we have this season, we'll have this division championship banner, we'll have our Calder Trophy winner, our Lady Byng winner. We have the knowledge that this team is finally in capable, trustworthy hands, and that whatever happens, it won't get as bad as it did before.

The mantra of this whole season has been "Why not us?" A lot of my non-Avs fan friends have made fun of it. I don't know why. I don't care why. The Avs are finally giving us something to believe in after a long stretch of failure. I don't want to get ahead of things and believe we could go from finishing 29th in the league to winning a Stanley Cup, but... at the same time. Why not? We beat every team in the league at least once this season. We have the players to do it, the coaching to do it. The fans to lift them there. It's not going to happen. Probably. But why not buy in? The worst that could happen is they lose, they go into the off-season having blown everyone's expectations out of the water, proving so many critics wrong. That is already a success.

There's nothing wrong with hoping. And so I am.