In pro wrestling there’s a concept known as the “squash match.” No, it does not involve powerbombing your opponent onto a wheelbarrow of fresh veggies. It’s when a wrestler that the company is looking to build up as a particularly strong or unstoppable force is booked in a match on TV against anonymous, often freelance talent (“jobbers”), where he or she takes all the offense while attempting to look as scary and dominant as possible in anticipation of bigger matchups to come.
The squash has earned a bit of a stigma, especially in the age of the smartened-up wrestling fan. It’s seen as a predictable and transparent exercise that fills time on shows without giving away the good stuff. Certainly, digging through the archives reveals some truly embarrassing squash matches that feature wrestlers who were never going to pan out as stars (please do me a favor and check out “Mantaur”). But in moderation, I tend to like them! I think there’s just as much artistry in making a match look uneven as there is in creating an exciting back-and-forth affair, and sometimes my little lizard brain just likes to see a big strong man go boom boom boom on unprepared amateurs. Like so.
What I’m saying is that predictable is not necessarily a synonym for boring, and lopsided action does not always preclude entertainment. Which brings me to the first period of Game 1 between the Colorado Avalanche and the Nashville Predators on Tuesday. The numbers alone tell a lot of the story—the Avs went into the first intermission up 5-0, having tripled up the Preds on shots. But the way in which Colorado stepped out with a kind of inevitable confidence, and never hit any obstacles on their path to an ostentatious victory, reminded me of the exact dynamics of a squash match. The Predators became jobbers, while the Avs sold themselves as the team that you want to see challenge for the title.
It started with two goals in the first three minutes. Facing backup goalie David Rittich because of main man Juuse Saros’s injury, the Avs immediately pressured the less effective netminder and unlocked a Nathan MacKinnon power-play goal from a series of passes out of the corner. Before the crowd even had time to sit back down, Devon Toews broke in on net to make it 2-0. Then, after the action quieted for a bit, an absolutely brutal Nashville turnover while on the power play opened the door for Andrew Cogliano. Cale Makar, who’s better than everybody, showed off some individual brilliance for the fourth (that deserves its own link). And then Artturi Lehkonen got the puck in an absurd amount of dangerous space and didn’t blow the finish. That’s five goals in under 13 minutes, if you’re keeping track.
It would have been a dereliction of duty for me to watch the rest of this one over triple overtime between the Penguins and Rangers, but there’s a reason squash matches aren’t 60 minutes long: You get everything you need in a short burst of power. The outcome was decided in this stretch, and all that was left was the question of what the actual final score would be. It ended 7-2, with the Avs coasting and the Preds left reckoning with the massive gap in ability they experienced on the ice.
“We were a little paralyzed out there, standing still,” said Predators forward Matt Duchene. “I mean, that’s as bad as we can play right there.”
We’ve mentioned this before, but the Avalanche consistently put on an exhilarating show, and Tuesday was the perfect tone-setter for the solid favorites out of the West who scored 3.8 goals per game this year while only allowing 2.86. All of their star players, from MacKinnon to Makar, found a way to contribute in this showing, and watching them put it all together leaves me with the same kind of awe I enjoyed when the future two-time champion Lightning really broke out a few years back. In the salary cap era, this is perhaps the best a hockey team can be, and even if 5-0 after 20 minutes doesn’t leave you with much incentive to stay on the channel, particularly when more competitive games are happening simultaneously, the greatness of the Avs is what stuck with me in the morning, even more than Evgeni Malkin’s long-awaited winner. Overtimes come and go. The Avs’ performances are something much rarer.
“We played exactly the way we wanted to play,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said after the game. “We were using our speed, we were on pucks quickly, guys were forechecking hard, we were aggressive, and we defended real well.”
There’s just one problem, though, and that’s the obvious difference between wrestling and actual sports: The guy who wins squashes can’t simply be booked into the main event. A year ago, when the Avs took a 2-0 series lead over the St. Louis Blues in the first round, I found it nearly impossible to imagine them being beaten. When they defeated Vegas in Game 2 for their sixth straight playoff win, I giddily wondered how high their ceiling could get.
And then that was the last game they won all year. Vegas shocked the Presidents’ Trophy winners with four straight to take the series in six, abruptly ending the Avs’ season and forcing them to try again this time. This Avs run, then, is quite clearly not a chapter in an already written story, but a precarious endeavor that, for all of its dizzying highs, will never be more than four mistakes away from crushing failure. No matter how impressively Colorado keeps squashing their adversaries, the threat that a team who wins ugly or luckily could swipe it all from them will loom until the 16th win arrives. For now, though, until it gets legitimately dangerous, the beauty of the Avalanche is a worthy end unto itself.