“Yeah, I’ve visualized it quite a bit, especially the last six weeks or so,” the captain of the Colorado Avalanche said Friday, standing outside the practice rink. “I mean, it’s — I wouldn’t say constantly on your mind, 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 dream about. You know you’ you got to snap yourself out of that.”
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 11 seasons of struggling and building, and he doesn’t want to take anything for granted.
This is a precious opportunity, to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, to turn fantasy into reality. Game 1 is Wednesday at Ball Arena in Denver (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS).
“I’ve always let myself dream and always let my mind go there if it wants to,” Landeskog said. “But it’s important to be able to snap out of it as well and get to today and what I can control today, and I think that’s what I talk about, the tough part of the playoffs and the mental grind of the playoffs. I mean , that’s it, not to let yourself get too far ahead. That’s what we talked about with our group: staying in the moment, staying focused on what we can do. But yeah, I mean, I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t been thinking about it.”
Landeskog is 29. He has no gray in his red beard. But he sounds like a wise, old man when he speaks about Colorado’s journey.
The forward has been with the Avalanche since they selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft. He debuted in 2011-12 and won the Calder Trophy, which goes to the NHL rookie of the year as voted by the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The only player who has been with the Avalanche longer is defenseman Erik Johnson, who arrived via a trade with the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 19, 2011.
The Avalanche missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011-12 and 2012-13, and in Landeskog’s second season they finished 29th in the NHL, ahead of only the Florida Panthers. (Landeskog said they were “blessed” to get the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft and select center Nathan MacKinnon.)
Landeskog got his first taste of the playoffs in 2013-14. Colorado won the Central Division. MacKinnon won the Calder. Patrick Roy, the legendary goalie in his first season behind an NHL bench, won the Jack Adams Award, voted the coach of the year by the NHL Broadcasters’ Association. Semyon Varlamov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the top goalie as voted by the NHL general managers, behind Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins. Still, the Avalanche lost to the Minnesota Wild in seven games in the Western Conference First Round.
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 Cup Final with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003 and won the Conn Smythe Trophy voted as the most valuable player of the playoffs, despite losing to the New Jersey Devils, and he had won the Cup with the Ducks in 2007.
“I remember he would say, ‘You don’t get these opportunities very often,'” Landeskog said. “We were going into the playoffs as a one seed. We’d had a good team. We had a goalie in Varlamov that was playing really good, and everybody’s feeling good, and a lot of guys were having career years. You don’ don’t realize how hard it is to win in the playoffs. He would always say that, ‘It’s not easy. It’s not supposed to be easy.'”
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The Avalanche missed the playoffs three seasons in a row from 2014-17, and in 2016-17 they went 22-56-4 and finished last in the NHL. Only the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings (.275) have had a worse points percentage than the 2016-17 Avalanche (.293) since the NHL introduced the salary cap in 2005-06. (It looked like they had bad luck in the NHL Draft Lottery, falling to No. 4 in the 2017 NHL Draft, but this time they were blessed to select defenseman Hold Makar.)
“Speaking of the tough times, that was definitely it,” Landeskog said. “It was [coach Jared Bednar’s] first year. We went 6-0 in preseason. We thought we had a good team. We thought we were going to be good. Things just kept getting worse and worse, even when we [thought] it couldn’t. … You were just hoping to get back to even average, to be an average team, and to be around .500 would have been great at that point just to not be the laughingstock of the NHL at the time.”
The Avalanche made the playoffs the next four seasons, but they lost to the Nashville Predators in six games in the first round in 2017-18, the San Jose Sharks in seven games in the second round in 2018-19, the Dallas Stars in seven games in the second round in 2019-20 and the Vegas Golden Knights in six games in the second round in 2020-21. The last one stung especially. They had won the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team only to lose in the second round for the third year in a row.
“We thought we were ready,” Landeskog said. “We thought we had a really good team, and we did. But it just goes to show you that you need the experience, and you need the experience firsthand. Guys need to experience how hard it is, and learning how to win in the playoffs, learning how to win on the road in the playoffs, and closing out games, coming from behind, all these things are not easy to do. It’s the mental grind of a playoff series. No matter what the score is in the series, it’s the mental grind and the mental challenges that I think are the toughest, staying even keel.”
The Avalanche have broken through this season, sweeping the Predators in the first round, defeating the Blues in six games in the second round and sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final.
MacKinnon is shining both ways. Makar is performing like some of the best defensemen ever to play the game. The roster is deeper and more seasoned.
Players are staying composed when calls don’t go their way, staying out of scrums after the whistle and bouncing back on a regular basis. Though the Avalanche are 12-2, it’s not like they haven’t faced any adversity. Landeskog is quick to point out that they have eight comeback wins. They have dealt with injuries.
“I think that helps with just everybody having a little bit more experience and knowing not to panic and trust in what we do, trusting in the systems that we have, and I think that’s been a big part of it,” Landeskog said.
Finally, the Cup Final.
All that hard work, all those hard lessons, and perhaps the hardest part is yet to come.
“Your first few years, and I think longer than you’d like to admit, it takes you [time] to figure out the League and establish yourself and how you 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 to be able to get to — even to get to the playoffs, really.
“And then to get to this point, you need to put the work in, and that’s what our group has done, and I’m very proud of this team, especially the guys who have been here through the downs and the tough years. To be apart of this, it’s also very exciting to be here [in June] and still be playing hockey. That’s something you dream about.
“To have this opportunity, now you realize what the older guys used to always say my first few years, that it’s not easy, that the chance to go to the playoffs doesn’t come around all the time — and the chance to be on a good team does not come around at all for some people. So, obviously, it’s a great opportunity for us, and we’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us, but it’s been a long journey to get here. “