Landeskog’s Stanley Cup dream within reach with Avalanche in Final

“Yeah, I was envisioning it being pretty good, especially in the last six weeks or so,” the Colorado Avalanche captain said Friday as he stood outside the practice track. “I mean, it’s — I wouldn’t say it’s in your head all the time, but it’s something, you know, you put your head on the pillow at night, it’s definitely something you think about and visualize and get out of dream you have to tear yourself out.”

Landeskog has a clear focus on the end goal. He also has a clear understanding of what it takes to get to this point after eleven seasons of fighting and building, and he doesn’t want to take anything for granted.

This is a valuable opportunity to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals and turn fantasies into reality. Game 1 takes place on Wednesday at the Ball Arena in Denver (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS).

“I’ve always let myself dream and always let my thoughts go there when they want to,” said Landeskog. “But it’s important that I can also break away from that and achieve today and what I can control today and I think that’s what I’m talking about, the hard part of the playoffs and the mental grind of the playoffs. I mean, that’s it, not to get too ahead of the curve. That’s what we talked about with our group: staying in the moment, focusing on what we can do. But yeah, I mean I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t think about it.”

Landeskog is 29. He has no gray in his red beard. But he sounds like a wise old man when he talks about Colorado’s journey.

The forward has been with the Avalanche since they picked him as the #2 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. He made his debut in 2011-12 and won the Calder Trophy, which goes to NHL Rookie of the Year, chosen by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The only player who has been with Avalanche longer is the defender Eric Johnsonwho arrived on February 19, 2011 via a trade with the St. Louis Blues.

The Avalanche missed the 2011-12 and 2012-13 Stanley Cup Playoffs and finished 29th in the NHL in Landeskog’s sophomore season, ahead only of the Florida Panthers. (Landeskog said they were “blessed” to pick the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and pick the center Nathan MacKinnon.)

Landeskog got their first taste of the playoffs in 2013/14. Colorado won the Central Division. MacKinnon won the Calder. Patrick Roy, the legendary goaltender in his first season behind an NHL bench, won the Jack Adams Award, voted Coach of the Year by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association. Semyon Varlamov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the best goaltender chosen by the NHL general managers after Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins. Despite this, the Avalanche lost to the Minnesota Wild in seven games in the first round of the Western Conference.

Colorado’s backup goalie was Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who was in the final season of a 16-year NHL career. He had gone to Game 7 of the 2003 Cup Finals with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and had won the Conn Smythe Trophy, voted most valuable player of the playoffs despite losing to the New Jersey Devils, and he had won the trophy with Ducks in the year 2007

“I remember him saying, ‘You don’t get these opportunities very often,'” said Landeskog. “We went into the playoffs first. We had a good team. We had a goalkeeper in Varlamov who played really well and everyone feels good and a lot of guys have had career years. I don’t know how hard it is to win the playoffs. He always said, ‘It’s not easy. It shouldn’t be easy.'”

[RELATED: Complete coverage of Stanley Cup Final]

The Avalanche missed the playoffs three straight seasons from 2014-17, and in 2016-17 they won 22-56-4 to finish bottom in the NHL. Only the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings (.275) had a worse point percentage than the 2016-17 Avalanche (.293) since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. (It looked like they were unlucky in the NHL draft lottery and dropped to 4th place in the 2017 NHL draft, but this time they were blessed to pick a defenseman Kal Makar.)

“Speaking of tough times, it definitely was,” said Landeskog. “It was [coach Jared Bednar’s] first year. We went 6-0 preseason. We thought we had a good team. We thought we would be good. Things just got worse, even as we did [thought] it couldn’t. … They were just hoping to get back to average, to be an average team, and to be around the 500 at that point would have been great just to not be the NHL’s laughing stock at that time.

The Avalanche made the playoffs over the next four seasons, but they lost in six games to the Nashville Predators in the 2017-18 first round, to the San Jose Sharks in seven games in the 2018-19 second round, and to seven games against the Dallas Stars second round games 2019-20; and the Vegas Golden Knights in six second round games 2020-21. The last one was particularly painful. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team, only to lose in the second round for the third straight year.

“We thought we were ready,” said Landeskog. “We thought we had a really good team and we did. But it just shows you that you need the experience, and you need the first-hand experience. Guys need to know how hard it is and learn how to win playoffs learning how to win playoffs away and finish games coming from behind, all those things are not easy. Sometimes you think the playoffs are just an extension of the regular season, but it’s not. It’s the mental grind of a playoff series. No matter what the score on the series, it’s the mental attrition and mental challenges that I think are the hardest to stay on track.”

The Avalanche have prevailed this season, defeating the Predators in the first round, beating the Blues in six games in the second round, and beating the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Finals.

MacKinnon shines in both directions. Makar plays like some of the best defenders to ever play the game. The squad is deeper and more experienced.

Players stay calm when calls don’t go their way, stay out of crowds after the whistle and regularly bounce back. Although the Avalanche are 12-2, it’s not as if they haven’t faced adversity. Landeskog is quick to point out that they have eight comeback wins. They treated injuries.

“I think that helps when everyone just has a little bit more experience and knows you don’t have to panic and trust what we’re doing and trust the systems that we have and I think that was it a big part of it,” said Landeskog.

Finally the cup final.

All this hard work, all these hard lessons, and maybe the hardest part is yet to come.

“Your first few years, and I think longer than you care to admit, that lasts [time] to figure out the league and establish yourself and how you’re going to fit in and how you’re going to be successful as an individual,” Landeskog said. “And you think it’s easier than it is, but it’s not, and you need a lot of good people around you that you can reach out to — even to really get into the playoffs.

“And to get to that point you have to put in the work and that’s what our group has done and I’m very proud of that team, especially the guys who have been here through the lows and the tough years. Being a part of it is also very exciting to be here [in June] and still play hockey. That’s what you dream of.

“To have that opportunity, you realize now what the older guys used to say in my early years, that it’s not easy, that the chance to make the playoffs doesn’t always come — and the chance to make it.” Being a good team is out of the question for some people so obviously it’s a great opportunity for us and we have a lot of work to do but it’s been a long road to get here. “

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