DENVER (AP) — The youth of the Colorado Avalanche was supposed to be a hindrance against a savvy squad like the San Jose Sharks.
Instead, these new kids on the ice have brought speed, spirit and a whole lot of spunk to the playoffs.
The youthful Avalanche stole a win over San Jose in their first-round Western Conference showdown and nearly earned another, before the Sharks rallied in Game 2 on Friday night for a 6-5 win in overtime.
With the series shifting back to Denver for Games 3 and 4 beginning Sunday night, the Avalanche feel as though they’re in a good place.
That’s youth for you — nothing rattles them.
Not even an overtime loss in a game in which Colorado could’ve taken a 2-0 series lead. Joe Pavelski prevented that by scoring the tying goal with 32 seconds remaining in regulation, paving the way for Devin Setoguchi’s winner.
“We’re fine,” rookie of the year contender Matt Duchene insisted Saturday.
The same can be said of the Sharks.
Salvaging the win allowed them to exhale. This is a team with heavy expectations, especially after a string of early postseason exits in recent years.
“I think everybody feels good about themselves after the game they played,” Sharks forward Joe Thornton said. “Hopefully, we’ll carry that into (Sunday).”
The fast and furious play the Avalanche have exhibited through the first two games was exactly what Avalanche coach Joe Sacco envisioned when he took the job last June.
He wanted an up-tempo team that was swift and sprightly.
That’s why the Avalanche drafted Duchene with the third overall pick in 2009, then picked up a steal in the second round in Ryan O’Reilly.
They are just two of the 10 Avalanche players making their postseason debuts against San Jose.
“I like the fact that we have a lot of energy in our game with our young guys, a lot of passion,” Sacco said.
Given their youth movement this season, the Avalanche weren’t expected to do much. They were picked by many to finish at the bottom of the NHL following last year’s cellar finish.
Yet here they are, underdogs again against the experienced Sharks.
It’s a role they’ve come to relish.
“We just did our thing, tried to have a good time with it, played loose,” rookie T.J. Galiardi said. “We’re going to continue to do the same thing.”
The Avalanche’s youth advantage shows up on the ice with quicker play and fresher legs.
Chris Stewart has been hard for the Sharks to contain, scoring three goals so far. Duchene has dished out three assists, and fellow rookie, Brandon Yip has a goal and an assist.
“They get to positions quick. They know how to get there and they do it fast,” San Jose defenseman Rob Blake said. “We knew they were a quick team.”
Galiardi has been getting under the skin of the Sharks all series.
He looks the part, too, especially with a lip full of stitches courtesy of a stick to the face in Game 1. The cut has become almost a badge of honor.
Either that or a bull’s eye.
Galiardi bothered and badgered defenseman Dan Boyle to the point that Boyle’s face filled with rage after a hit from Galiardi late in Game 2.
The two had to be separated, the younger Galiardi refusing to back down.
“I’m going to play hard every time I’m out on the ice. If they don’t like it, it’s too bad,” Galiardi said. “If Boyle thinks he can’t be hit, then it’s too bad.”
Galiardi has been on the receiving end, too. He was clobbered hard by Blake in overtime, Galiardi’s helmet flying off as he fell to the ice.
“Didn’t even hurt at all,” Galiardi said. “Probably looked worse than it was.”
It was the kind of hit the league might take a second look at, not that San Jose saw anything wrong with it.
“That’s hockey,” Blake said. “No penalty on the play at all. It wasn’t that hard of a hit.”
In addition to finding a way to slow down the speedy Avalanche, the Sharks are also trying to get their top line going. The crew of Patrick Marleau, Dany Heatley and Thornton scored 40 percent of the team’s goals in the regular season but haven’t put the puck in the net in this series.
“It really doesn’t matter who is on the ice as long as we get the job done,” Thornton said. “At this point of the year, it’s all about wins. That’s all that matters.”
The Avalanche feel the same way.
Sure, they’re young. And yes, they’re inexperienced. But they’re brash; they don’t intimidate easily.
“I lost that (awe factor) after the first few games in the league,” Galiardi said. “You realize you can play here. … We bring a lot of speed and enthusiasm to every game. We have nothing to lose. We’re going to go out and play our style.”