After the Avalanche finished off the sweep of the Oilers in Edmonton Monday night with a 6-5 overtime win, Western Conference championship hats sat on the table in front of Erik Johnson and Mikko Rantanen as they met with members of the media.
They’re among the five remaining Avs players who suffered through the historically awful 48-point season in 2016-17, when the payroll also was scraping the salary cap ceiling.
The others: Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and J.T. Compher.
Plus, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar was in his first season in the NHL after Patrick Roy’s August bailout and GM Joe Sakic was overseeing the rebuild that Roy for the most part couldn’t accept.
And now they’re all heading for the Stanley Cup Finals against either the Rangers or Lightning.
The Rangers would be intriguing in part because their GM, Chris Drury, broke in with the Avalanche, was a key cog in the 2001 Stanley Cup run and was Sakic’s road roommate. He was a huge Avalanche fan favorite before his controversial 2003 trade to Calgary.
And the Lightning? They’re the two-time defending Stanley Cup champs seeking a three-peat. One of their defensemen is Denver-born, 23-year-old Cal Foote, the son of long-time Avalanche bedrock defenseman Adam Foote.
Either of those opponents would match the Avalanche against one of the top goaltenders in the world — the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy or the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin.
Of the Avs left from that low-point season, Johnson has had to be the most patient.
He joined the Avalanche in a February 2011 trade with the Blues, a few months before Colorado claimed Landeskog with the No. 2 overall choice of the 2011 draft and brought him straight to the NHL the ensuing season.
“I told Landy we’ve been teammates 11, 12 years, so to get this chance to play for the Cup after waiting that long …,” Johnson said. “I told Nate and Mr. [Stan] Kroenke and Mikko that I’ve waited a long time to do this, so it’s exciting.”
He noted that his injury-plagued career has had its challenges. He missed one entire season with the Blues early in his career because of a knee injury suffered on a golf course and surgery. Among other injury-caused absences, he also missed Colorado’s first-round loss to Nashville in 2018.
“When I first got to Colorado in 2011, the team was dead last,” he said. “We had some up and down years after that and then we’ve knocked on the door the last couple of years. . . With injuries and some things that happened along the way, you never know when that opportunity is going to come. I’m just soaking it all in, trying to live in the moment and have a lot of fun.”
A year ago, during the second-round series with the Golden Knights, Johnson didn’t travel with the team to Las Vegas and I ran into him at the memorial tribute to Pierre Lacroix at the Inverness Hotel. Because of concussion issues, he played only four regular season games and not at all in what turned out to be the Avs’ short-lived playoff stay. He ended up waving his modified no-movement/no trade clause for the expansion draft. (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 — through next season.
This season, he has been adaptive and accepting of his fluctuating role, and now is locked into the pairing with Bo Byram heading into the Cup Finals. The next goal is to raise the Cup overhead … as the Avs last did four days before Byram was born in June 2001.
Johnson noted that 15 years after breaking into the league and after playing more than 900 regular-season and playoff games, he finally is making his first Finals appearance. Then Johnson smiled and said he looks over at his defensive partner and realizes Byram has played 49 regular-season games and 14 playoff games … and he’s already there.
Landeskog and MacKinnon followed Johnson and Rantanen to the interview room Monday night.
“It feels good, it’s a step in the right direction, to move past another round,” Landeskog said. “We know the job’s not finished, but I think this group showed some real good resiliency in that (comeback) third period.”
The Avalanche captain felt 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 and we’re going to the Finals. It’s obviously very special.
“I’d probably be lying if I said I thought that we’d be here one day during our 16-17 season. That was hard, especially. That was as close to rock bottom as you can come when it comes to playing in the NHL. At the same time, we showed our resiliency there. Obviously Joe (Sakic) and (Chris MacFarland) have done a great job of building our team to what it is today. . .
“We started making the playoffs the next year after that and we started believing and you start seeing progress and start moving. Losing in the second round three years in a row was tough. You’ve got to trip on the finish line a few times sometimes before you cross it. I think for us, that’s been true so far. The job’s not done. It’s going to be another tough series, but we’ll get some rest here and get ready to go.”
MacKinnon again redirected the spotlight and wasn’t going to get too excited about anything short of the ultimate goal.
“Obviously, with Gabe and EJ especially going that far, we have come a long way,” MacKinnon said. “Obviously, the job’s not finished, but you have to enjoy the journey as well. We appreciate what we have in front of us. It’s a good opportunity. It feels awesome to move on”
The five “survivors” would have the lowest of lows to compare it to.
Terry Frei (firstname.lastname@example.org, @tfrei) is a Denver-based author and journalist. He has been named a state’s sportswriter of the year seven times in peer voting — four times in Colorado and three times in Oregon. His 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,” “March 1939: Before the Madness,” and “’77: Denver, the Broncos, and a Coming of Age.” He also collaborated with Adrian Dater on “Save By Roy,” was a long-time vice president of the Professional Hockey Writers Association and has covered the hockey Rockies, Avalanche and the NHL at-large. His website is www.terryfrei.com and his bio is available at www.terryfrei.com/bio.html
His Colorado Hockey Now column archive can be accessed here