It wasn’t your typical sports bar two-fer, but on Thursday night, Zach McBride stood at the perfect vantage point to watch, simultaneously, the Colorado Avalanche play and, through a window overlooking the ice rink just beyond Bender’s Bar & Grill in Westminster, his buddy’s adult rec-league team skate joyously into the playoffs.
For the Avs, it marked the first time since 2014 that they carried a bandwagon of hardcore fans and happy hangers-on into the postseason. And that year, which ended with the thud of a first-round collapse against Minnesota, marked the only time in a string of seven mostly miserable seasons when the team carried the excitement well into spring.
But Thursday night’s packed house spoke — loudly — to a new truth about the state’s winter pro sports teams: That was then, this is now.
“It’s good for Colorado,” said McBride, who took time away from his bartending job to join the festive atmosphere. “It’s nice to have another team in the playoffs and awesome to see them perform at such a high level.”
He was speaking of the Avs, who elicited cheers when Nikita Zadorov scored to put the Avs up 1-0 on the Predators in Nashville. But on the adjacent rink at the Ice Center at the Promenade, his buddy also put one past the goaltender.
“I was rooting for the Nuggets to get into the playoffs, too,” McBride said.
Although they narrowly missed qualifying and have now gone five straight campaigns without a taste of the NBA postseason, the Nuggets’ elimination nonetheless capped a year of resurgence for both Denver teams that call the Pepsi Center home. The Nuggets finished 46-36, finally topping the .500 mark, improving by six wins over last season and regenerating hope among the faithful for a return to the years when 50-win seasons were the norm.
But the Avs’ turnaround was historic — the fourth-biggest in NHL history. From last season’s forgettable 48-point performance, which ranked worst in the league, to this year’s 95-point surge, which culminated with a win in the regular-season finale that launched them into the playoffs, the Avs slowly proved to their fan base, and beyond, that the still-young core of a sputtering rebuild has finally found its way.
“Let’s go, Avs!” bar owner Jim Armstrong, wearing a retro Quebec Nordiques Joe Sakic sweater, boomed over the speaker system as the game was about to begin. “I’ve been waiting to say that in April for a long time.”
The playoff-worthy season unfolded behind a second wave of youth and the emergence of forward Nathan MacKinnon, who provided a boost of star power that vaulted him into the conversation for the league’s most valuable player award. His combination of speed, strength and skill once again made Avalanche games must-see TV.
Gabe Testa, a data scientist from Westminster, staked out a prime table close to the bar and surrounded by screens to take in the spectacle. Originally from Calgary, he arrived in Denver via Reno, Nev., in time to watch the Avs’ last playoff appearance — in fact, he was in the stands for the Game 7 loss to Minnesota. This season, he has tickets for Game 4 of the Nashville series, and he hopes it won’t be an elimination game.
“As long as they win a couple games and play good hockey, I’ll be happy,” Testa said. “Sometimes all those hard years tell you who the true fans are.”
Taylor Foust, who joined Testa, would be one of those. He has been one-third of a season-ticket consortium, which gave him particular insight into the groundswell of fan interest that snowballed throughout the winter. In previous seasons, there were times he couldn’t give away the tickets he couldn’t use himself.
“But lately, it’s picked up a lot,” he said. “It’s a good turnaround. The talent is clearly there, and the core is still intact from the last playoff berth. It makes this a lot more fun, especially because they were incredible at home.”
The Avs at home went 28-11-2, among the top such records in the league.
“MacKinnon has been incredible,” Foust said, “and Mikko Rantanen has come into his own, and Tyson Jost has turned out to be pretty good, too. But I think it all comes down to chemistry more than anything. This group wants to win for each other.”
And also, it seems, for the fans.
Joe McKernan and his wife, Christine, sat at a table by the window overlooking a rink before the game. Below, their 13-year-old son, Michael, powered through drills with other youth players participating in a spring development league. He carries the same passion for the game as his older sisters, but his hockey experience has been lacking something that was part of their childhood — a deep Avalanche playoff run.
“He hasn’t seen that excitement of what it’s like,” said McKernan, who remembers entering a raffle for playoff tickets in years past. “I grew up around the Kings in L.A., but then we moved here when the Avs were new and they won the Stanley Cup. They had all these great players — (Joe) Sakic, (Peter) Forsberg, (Patrick) Roy. Now, there’s so many new guys. That’s the big difference. It’s great to see them back where they should be.”
Leaving the locker room after his practice, carrying two sticks and his equipment bag slung over his shoulder, Michael explained that every Avalanche game now beckons him to watch, whereas a year ago it could sometimes be a painful exercise. Although the Avs couldn’t beat the top-seeded Predators in Game 1 of the playoffs Thursday night — a late Nashville flurry produced a 5-2 final score — they outplayed them for significant stretches of the game, which offered a sliver of hope for the future.
Colorado, which plays Game 2 at Nashville on Saturday afternoon, is guaranteed two home games — on Monday and Wednesday nights.
“This season, they actually have a chance,” Michael said. “I’m inspired, actually. When I see the Avalanche do well, it makes me want to play harder and do well, too.”