DENVER -- I have to admit I was a bit skeptical that Denver could pull off the whole outdoor thing.
The Colorado Avalanche were coming off a disappointing season in 2014-15 that saw them miss the playoffs, and then they started this season poorly. The Detroit Red Wings were a natural opponent, given their history. But let's be honest, they haven't been true rivals for more than a decade and, in recent years, haven't even played in the same conference.
The fact that neither team has enjoyed meaningful playoff success in recent years also suggested maybe getting fans to ante up for the Coors Field events might be problematic.
But starting with Friday's emotional, hotly contested alumni game featuring many of the combatants from the time when these teams were ferocious rivals and among the class of the NHL, right through to Saturday's dramatic 5-3 win by Detroit before a sellout crowd of 50,095, the weekend was a monster success. (Unless you were troubled by the sections of fake snow that took to the air during a breezy third period and briefly delayed play while delighting fans.)
Here's what we learned from the final outdoor event of the season.
The crowd was no joke: There were plenty of jokes that fans were more interested in the alumni game. Still, it was a bit shocking to see that the announced crowd was 43,319 for Friday night's tilt. That's a big number, and the game hit all the right notes in terms of nostalgia and emotion, including a nice group photo and salute to the crowd at the end. That set up the uncomfortable possibility that the real game on Saturday might not meet those numbers. How embarrassing would that have been?
Didn't happen. Saturday's announced crowd of 50,095 was a sellout and bore out NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly's assessment that Detroit travels well. As for the wind, which tore up the fake snow that gave the baseball stadium a real winter feel and briefly delayed the third period, the players seemed not to care.
"I mean, you're a professional hockey player. You're used to deal with different things going on in the stands. That's just one of those things," Tanguay said. "It made the settings even much more better. You feel like you're skating on the pond, and all of a sudden, the snow's blowing everywhere, so I thought it was very cool. Beautiful stadium. Beautiful setting. How buzzing the crowd was and how loud it was. It's what you expect from those games, and certainly those are memories. I've played for quite a bit of time now, and those are memories that'll stick in the back of my mind, for sure."
Net defective: The Avs go back to work on Tuesday, the day after the trade deadline, when they travel to Minnesota to face the Wild, their closest rival for a playoff berth. Saturday's loss keeps them four points ahead of the Wild, although the Wild now have two games in hand. If the Avalanche are going to hold off the Wild for the final playoff spot (Colorado trails the red-hot Nashville Predators by five points, and the Preds have a game in hand), they'll need to get better goaltending than they did from Semyon Varlamov on Saturday night. Varlamov allowed four goals on 27 shots, and he did not look particularly sharp as Detroit scored four times in the third period. "Pretty confident Varly's going to bounce back on the next game against Minny," Avs head coach Patrick Roy said. "I mean, sure, there were a couple of goals he'd like to see again. But pretty confident he's going to have a good game in Minny."
Holding their ground: It's hard to imagine either of these teams being active before Monday's trade deadline. Both teams are in playoff positions, although the Avs are in a bit more of a precarious position sitting in the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference, while Detroit used the two points earned Saturday to move three points ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first wild-card spot. That's not a small distinction, as the second wild-card team will face the NHL's best team, the Washington Capitals, in the first round. The bottom line for both teams is that they cannot afford to be trading young assets or draft picks to bring in rental players, not until they see what they have in their own lineup in terms of building a perpetual contender. In Detroit's case, the team for years would add at the deadline because they were always a threat to go deep in the playoffs. As recently as last season, the Wings were buyers, adding Erik Cole and Marek Zidlicky, before they were dumped in the first round by the Tampa Bay Lightning. While the Wings look to continue their remarkable streak of playoff appearances this spring -- they last missed the postseason in 1990 -- they need to find out about their next generation of players and whether they will be able to accept the torch when Pavel Datsyuk, 37, and Henrik Zetterberg, 35, step away. You don't find out the answers to those questions by bringing in rental players at the deadline. So they won't.
Confusing Avs: The Avs are a curious team, and Saturday's game highlighted the good, the bad and, sure, the ugly about this team. When the Avs are going, they are big and fast and they have a nice blend of skill and toughness. Nathan MacKinnon scored a goal-scorer's goal in the first period, ripping a hard shot from well out past Wings goalie Petr Mrazek. Blake Comeau made a nice play to Tyson Barrie stepping in from the blue line that gave the Avs a 2-1 lead that they carried into the third period. But their power play wasn't very good (0-for-3, and they have just two power-play goals in their last seven games). On Saturday, they gave up a goal to Abdelkader with 6:32 left in regulation, and then tied it 14 seconds later on Tanguay's goal. They had a power-play opportunity right after that, but instead of closing the deal, they gave up goals to Brad Richards and Darren Helm (the latter into an empty net) in the final minute. Sure, this is a young team, but that's not an excuse anymore, according to Colorado veteran Jarome Iginla. "This would have been a big one," Iginla said. "I think all the guys know what the goal is at the end there to get it [to overtime]. But it didn't work out that way. We know. I think it's too easy an excuse to say we're just a young team and these things happen. We were in a position, and we expect to be able to close those out and to at least get it to OT. We know better."
Veteran scorer returns: It was nice to see Richards finally net the winner. It has been a bit of a struggle for the two-time Stanley Cup champion and former playoff MVP. Coming into Saturday's game, he had one goal in his past 12 games. But his performance Saturday was a reminder of how important he was to the Chicago Blackhawks last spring as they won their third Stanley Cup in six years. Richards finished the playoff year with 14 points in 23 games for the champs.