After the NHL's qualification round, the Colorado Avalanche were co-favorites to win the Stanley Cup, according to the betting markets. After Game 4 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Dallas Stars on Sunday, they're now one loss away from being eliminated.
"In terms of belief, we have no choice. We're just trying to get Game 5, and go from there," Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon said after a 5-4 loss that handed Dallas a 3-1 series lead. Colorado faces a potential playoff exit on Monday night in Edmonton, Alberta.
Colorado got back into the series with a 6-4 victory in Game 3 on Wednesday night. But the Avalanche had their worst period of hockey since entering the bubble to start the next game. Dallas scored three times in the first 10 minutes, 45 seconds of Sunday's first period, with goals by John Klingberg and then Radek Faksa and Jamie Benn on the power play. The Avalanche were held without a shot on goal until there was 1:34 left in the first.
"With a few days off, we wanted to come out and set the tone. We did what we had to do in the first 20 minutes," said Benn, referencing the two-day break in the playoffs after players opted out of games in order to put a focus on issues of racial violence and injustice.
"They came out hard. They earned their bounces. All of a sudden we were down 3-0," Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said. "We got better as the game wore on. But getting down in the hole early didn't help us."
The Avalanche played mistake-filled hockey in the opening period, from goalie Pavel Francouz failing to secure the puck on Faksa's goal to three penalties taken in the period. Coach Jared Bednar said he didn't see the sloppy start coming.
"We were quiet [before the game] but we were quiet before the last game, too. It looked like we had a really good focus. I think Dallas came out and engaged physically. And then the penalties gave them life," he said.
But in a series that's seen offensive surges from both teams, the Avalanche climbed back into the game with goals from Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar in the second period. However, the Stars surged back in the third period on a power-play goal by Roope Hintz and an unassisted goal by Denis Gurianov just 32 seconds later -- scored after a brutal turnover by Makar behind his own net.
"It's gonna happen. Plays like that happen during the course of the game and the course of a career. S--- happens. That's all that there is," Landeskog said of his rookie defenseman.
MacKinnon called the Stars' fourth goal "deflating" for his team.
The Avalanche scored twice in the third period, including a 6-on-5 goal with 4 seconds left in the game, but fell short and now face elimination.
"That's hockey. Momentum shifts. It happens. We have to find a way to stop the bleeding when they score that first one. Then after the second one, [it's] don't let them get three. That's sports for you," Landeskog said. "The series isn't over. We're going to be ready for Game 5."
Despite Francouz being pulled Sunday after giving up five goals on 26 shots, Bednar made no indication that he won't be back in for Game 5. "He's gotta be better," Bednar said, "and we know he can be better."
But the coach's hand is forced here with his goaltending, as starter Philipp Grubauer remains out of the series with a lower-body injury he suffered in Game 1. Much like they were in the regular season, the Avalanche have been hit hard by injuries in this series, missing forwards Matt Calvert and Joonas Donskoi and defenseman Erik Johnson as well as Grubauer.
"They're not ready. They're not an option for us. We're not going to play injured players that can't play. We have what we have," Bednar said. "We have to find a way without them."
Most of all, the Avalanche are going to have to find a way to keep the puck out of their net. Dallas has scored 19 goals in three games of this series, and has 26 goals in its past five postseason games.
"They score in a bunches right now. They're very opportunistic. Obviously, some of that's on us. When they get one, they get two or three right now. We have to limit that," Landeskog said. If they don't, the previous round's Stanley Cup favorite won't make it past this round.