After the Avalanche finished sweeping the Oilers in Edmonton on Monday night with a 6-5 overtime victory, the Western Conference championship hats sat on the table ahead of Erik Johnson and Mikko Rantanen as they were meeting with members of the media.
They are among five remaining Avs players who suffered from the historic terrible 48-point season in 2016-17, when the payroll also scraped the salary cap.
The others: Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and JT Compher.
Additionally, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar was in his first NHL season after Patrick Roy was bailed out in August and general manager Joe Sakic was overseeing the rebuild that Roy typically couldn’t accept.
And now they’re all heading to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Rangers or the Lightning.
The Rangers would be intriguing in part because their general manager, Chris Drury, broke into the Avalanche, was a key cog in the 2001 Stanley Cup run and was Sakic’s roommate on the road. He was a big fan favorite with the Avalanche before his controversial 2003 trade with Calgary.
And the Lightning? They are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions looking for a hat-trick. One of their defensemen is Denver-born Cal Foote, 23, son of longtime Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote.
Either opponent would face the Avalanche against one of the best goaltenders in the world – Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Lightning or Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers.
Of the Avs remaining this low season, Johnson must have been the most patient.
He joined the Avalanche in a trade from the Blues in February 2011, months before Colorado claimed Landeskog with the second overall pick of the 2011 draft and took him straight to the NHL for the season. next.
“I told Landy we’ve been teammates for 11, 12 years, so to have this chance to play for the Cup after waiting so long…” Johnson said. “I told Nate and Mr. [Stan] Kroenke and Mikko I’ve waited a long time to do this, so it’s exciting.
He noted that his injury-plagued career had its challenges. He missed an entire season with the Blues early in his career due to a knee injury sustained on the golf course and surgery. Among other injury-caused absences, he also missed Colorado’s first-round loss to Nashville in 2018.
“When I came to Colorado in 2011, the team was last,” he said. “We had ups and downs for years after that, and then we knocked on the door the last two years. . . With the injuries and some things that happened along the way, you never know when that opportunity is going to come. I immerse myself in everything, I try to live in the present moment and I have a lot of fun.
A year ago, during the second-round series with the Golden Knights, Johnson did not travel with the team to Las Vegas and I ran into him at the Pierre Lacroix memorial tribute at the hotel Inverness. Due to concussion issues, he only played four regular season games and none at all in what turned out to be a short-lived playoff stint for the Avs. He ended up waving his amended no-move/no-trade clause for the expansion project. (His deal lists 19 teams he can be traded to, according to Cap Friendly.) But as expected, the Kraken didn’t take him and he’s under contract — at $6 million a year — until next season. .
This season he has adapted and come to terms with his fluctuating role, and is now locked in the duo with Bo Byram ahead of the Cup final. The next goal is to increase the Cup’s overhead … like the Avs did four days before Byram was born in June 2001.
Johnson noted that 15 years after breaking into the league and having played more than 900 regular season and playoff games, he is finally making his first Finals appearance. Then Johnson smiled and said he looked at his defensive partner and realized that Byram had played 49 regular season games and 14 playoff games…and he’s already there.
Landeskog and MacKinnon followed Johnson and Rantanen into the interview room Monday night.
“It feels good, it’s a step in the right direction, to go through another round,” Landeskog said. “We know the job is not done, but I think this group showed very good resilience in this third (back) period.”
The Avalanche captain was happy for Johnson.
“He’s been there since my first training camp,” Landeskog said. “He was my first roommate on the road. Now we’re sitting here 11 years later going to the final. It’s obviously very special.
“I would probably be lying if I said I thought we would be here one day during our 16-17 season. It was hard, above all. It was as close to the bottom as it gets when it comes to playing in the NHL. At the same time, we showed our resilience there. Obviously Joe (Sakic) and (Chris MacFarland) have done a great job of making our team what it is today. . .
“We started making the playoffs the following year and we started believing in it and you start seeing progress and moving. Losing in the second round three years in a row was tough. Sometimes you have to stumble across the finish line before you cross it. I think for us that’s been true so far. The work is not done. It’s going to be another tough series, but we’re going to rest here and get ready to go.
MacKinnon again shifted the spotlight and wasn’t going to get too excited about anything other than the ultimate goal.
“Obviously with Gabe and EJ going this far, we’ve come a long way,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously the work is not finished, but you also have to enjoy the trip. We appreciate what we have in front of us. It’s a good opportunity. It’s great to move on”
The five “survivors” would have the lowest of lows to compare it to.
terry frei ([email protected], @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named state sportswriter of the year seven times in a vote by his peers – four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. Her seven books include the novels “Olympic Affair” and “The Witch’s Season”. Among his five non-fiction works are “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming”, “Third Down and a War to Go”, “Mars 1939: Before the Madness”, and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming de l ‘age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save by Roy”, long served as vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and covered the Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL in general. His website is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available on www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here