DENVER — The sight of a blistering, second-period wrist shot by Kraken winger Oliver Bjorkstrand stunningly putting his team ahead by two goals had allowed followers of his second-year franchise to dare to dream the impossible.
After being outplayed most of Sunday night’s opening-round Game 7 to that point, the Kraken somehow had found themselves poised to knock out the defending Stanley Cup champions for good. And though the Colorado Avalanche eventually did mount a furious, desperation-fueled comeback, the Kraken and goalie Philipp Grubauer held on for a history-making, 2-1 victory and advanced to a second-round playoff showdown against the Dallas Stars.
“We’ve shown all year that we can play with the best and beat the best,” Grubauer said after stopping 33 of 34 shots fired his way by his onetime Avalanche team. “And obviously, going into this series when you look at the regular-season games, they were pretty tight and pretty even. So, nobody on our side thought they were going to sweep us in four games.”
Game 1 starts Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. PT in Dallas, followed by Game 2 on Thursday night.
Colorado pulled goalie Alexandar Georgiev for an extra attacker the final two minutes, but Grubauer held strong while his defenders blocked several shots to get to their total of 29 on the night.
“It means a lot ending their season and beating the Stanley Cup champions,” Grubauer said. “So, there’s lots more to come for our group. But that’s only series No. 1.”
This dazzling Kraken playoff run had already captured the imagination of Seattle sports fans even before the visitors captured their third road game of the series and fifth at Ball Arena this season. The Kraken went 2-0-1 against Colorado during the regular season, winning both games played at Ball Arena and then took three of four road games in this playoff round as well.
But even after a 100-point regular season that was a 40-point boost over the prior expansion campaign, few pundits gave the Kraken a chance against an Avalanche squad that lost only three times in regulation the season’s final five weeks.
Colorado won its championship a year ago with a bevy of talented young stars many had envisioned repeating their Cup feat this season and in years to come. And that group, even without injured captain Gabriel Landeskog and absentee winger Valeri Nichushkin, was not about to give up their crown without a fight.
Mikko Rantanen scored his sixth goal of the series by deflecting a Nathan MacKinnon power-play slapper home with just 27.3 seconds to go in the middle period to cut the Kraken’s lead in half. That buoyed the home side at intermission, and they then came out for the third and appeared to tie things on another MacKinnon slap shot just three minutes in.
But in yet another remarkable twist in a series filled with them, the Kraken successfully challenged that the earlier zone entry had been offside. The goal was taken off the board and the Kraken had their lead back.
“I think it helped us a little bit,” Bjorkstrand said of a Kraken team that lacked momentum when the period began but quickly regrouped after the disallowed goal. “It helped us pick it up a little bit. So, it was nice to see it called back and it gave us some life.”
The Kraken’s first-ever playoff-round victory, in an emotional, hard-fought series with subplots on and off the ice, came down to the finest hours in Kraken uniforms by both Bjorkstrand and Grubauer. It would be Bjorkstrand snapping a scoreless deadlock just over three minutes into the second period by shoveling a puck out from the corner and off the glove of Avalanche forward Ben Meyers before it headed into the net.
It was the seventh straight series game in which the Kraken opened the scoring.
Bjorkstrand’s second goal, just past the period’s seven-minute mark, was more typical for him. He took a Yanni Gourde pass off the boards on the fly and streaked down left wing before unleashing the wrister just past Georgiev’s outstretched glove.
“I felt throughout the whole series that I’d like to contribute with goals and offensively,” said Bjorkstrand, who added to another Kraken record by becoming the 15th different player to score in the series. “But I tried to stick with it. In Game 7 I didn’t want to go out not being able to sleep at night because I didn’t perform well. So, I tried to give it a push. Some nights, you just kind of feel the puck better and I just felt like this was one of those nights.”
That second goal stunned the crowd. Almost immediately, fans began imploring the defending champs to mount a comeback, which the Avalanche tried furiously to do. They peppered Grubauer with chances, but he stood tall again just as he’d done to keep things scoreless during a first-period onslaught by Colorado.
The Kraken were outshot 16-6 in the opening frame, and without Grubauer the series probably would have been over just 20 minutes in.
“I think Grubi was amazing,” Gourde, who assisted on both goals, said of the Kraken netminder. “Grubi was nothing short of amazing tonight. Honestly, he was our rock back there. Everything he saw, he was making a save. Sometimes, he didn’t see it and he was still making saves.”
As the third period ticked on following the reversed Avalanche goal, Bjorkstrand midway through nearly capped a natural “hat trick” of three consecutive goals with a wrist shot that deflected off the cross bar. Bjorkstrand then nearly had his hat trick again with a point-blank chance from the slot that again rang off the post.
It remained a one-goal lead, and the desperate Avalanche kept coming. Logan O’Connor had the best Colorado chance in the dying minutes, sending a shot sending toward an open left side of the net only to have Jamie Oleksiak step in front and block it at the last instant.
“There’s not really one difference maker in this series,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said. “I mean, it’s a collective group effort by our guys. On a night where the series was decided, we had a couple of guys that stood out, but the rest of the group did their job.”
And got to live another round after slaying a giant.