After Nazem Kadri was out with an injury, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen moved into the middle to take his place and took a couple of hits on the backs of his legs from Edmonton’s Duncan Keith, who sent him onto the ice.
Rantanen got up, shoved Keith and got back in the game. He later scored the go-ahead goal in a back-and-forth Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, which the Avalanche won to sweep the Oilers out of the playoffs and play for the Stanley Cup.
The Avalanche didn’t come out of the series unscathed, but with Edmonton star Leon Draisaitl running on one good leg and defenseman Darnell Nurse recovering from a hip injury, they face the New York Rangers or defend backs Back champions Tampa Bay Lightning in next week’s cup final.
“It’s a battle of attrition,” said Jared Bednar in his fifth season as Colorado’s coach. “No one gets through without going through a few ups and downs and ebbs and flows to streaks, injuries and adversity, and it seems like the teams that get through it best are usually the ones that end up — or at least get into it finals are coming.”
After defeating Connor McDavid and the Oilers in four games, the start of this final is at least a week away, if not more. While Kadri’s left thumb injury makes him a long shot at returning, the extra time-out could allow the Avalanche to mend starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper and other players before they face their biggest playoff task yet.
The west final, spanning five or more games, would have risked more injuries for Colorado after winger Andre Burakovsky missed time to block a shock and each shift was another opportunity for an extra shot in areas without padding . The Avalanche certainly won’t scoff at the benefit of tranquility.
“A week off will help us with the battered players we have,” Rantanen said. “But we’re used to it. We also had a week off after the first lap, so this is nothing new for us.”
Being in the final is new for this core of Nathan MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen, Norris Trophy finalist defender Cale Makar and grey-haired blue liner Erik Johnson. The organization hasn’t reached that point since 2001, when it won its second championship in six years.
The ’96 and ’01 championship teams were captained by Joe Sakic, now in his eighth season as general manager and ninth as head of front office. Amid post-game celebrations to acquire crucial trade deadline Artturi Lehkonen’s overtime winner on Monday night, some players asked Sakic what he and his team-mates have done with the Clarence Campbell Bowl – the trophy for victory in the West sometimes used by players in the name of superstition is avoided A larger trophy is possible later.
Landeskog rallied the Avalanche to stand around it, and he and MacKinnon both laid hands on it but didn’t guide it across the ice.
“At the end of the day, we make our own history here,” Makar said. “Whatever these guys have decided, the leadership group on our team, I know it’s the right decision.”
There was no toothless smile in the team picture with the trophy and NHL Assistant Commissioner Bill Daly, and celebration for the Avalanche was muted.
“Obviously everyone is excited about the opportunity we’re given, but I don’t feel like anyone is happy,” Bednar said. “Everyone is happy and it’s good, but that’s not why we started the season. That wasn’t our approach at first and it’s certainly very difficult to get here, but our guys are already quite focused and we’ll be itching to get here soon.”
First, the Rangers and Lightning need to clear the Eastern Conference Finals to see who lined up next for Colorado, which has home field advantage regardless.
“From this series, it doesn’t matter at all,” Rantanen said. “Who comes, we play. We don’t care at all.”