With Nazem Kadri out with an injury, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen shifted to center to take his spot and was on the receiving end of a few chops on the back of his leg from Edmonton’s Duncan Keith that sent him to the ice.
Rantanen rose to his feet, shoved Keith and got back in the play. He later scored the go-ahead goal in a back-and-forth Game 4 of the Western Conference final that the Avalanche won to sweep the Oilers out of the playoffs and move on to play for the Stanley Cup.
The Avalanche didn’t make it through the series unscathed, but with Edmonton star Leon Draisaitl skating on one good leg and defenseman Darnell Nurse playing through a hip injury, they are moving on to face the New York Rangers or back-to-back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Cup Final next week.
“It’s a battle of attrition,” said Jared Bednar, in his fifth season as Colorado’s coach. “No one gets through it without suffering a bunch of ups and downs and ebbs and flows to series, to injuries, facing adversity, and it seems that the teams that get through that the best are usually the ones that are standing at the end — or at least getting in the finals.”
After finishing off Connor McDavid and the Oilers in four games, the start of that final is at least a week away, if not more. While Kadri’s left thumb injury makes him a long shot to return, the extra time off could allow the Avalanche to get starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper and other players healthy before facing their biggest playoff task yet.
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The West final extending to five or more games would have risked more injuries for Colorado after winger Andre Burakovsky missed time blocking a shock and each shift was another opportunity for an extra whack at areas without padding. The Avalanche certainly won’t scoff at the benefit of rest.
“A week off is going to help us with the banged-up players we have,” Rantanen said. “But we’re used to it. After first round, we had a week off, too, so it’s nothing new to us.”
Being in the final is new for this core of Nathan MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Rantanen, Norris Trophy finalist defenseman Cale Makar and grizzled blue liner Erik Johnson. The organization hasn’t reached this point since 2001, when it won its second championship in six years.
The captain of the ’96 and ’01 championship teams was Joe Sakic, now in his eighth season as general manager and ninth running the front office. Amid the postgame celebration of key trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen’s overtime winner Monday night, some players asked Sakic what he and his teammates did with the Clarence Campbell Bowl — the trophy for winning the West that is sometimes avoided by players in the name of superstition with a bigger trophy possible down the road.
Landeskog gathered the Avalanche to stand around it, and he and MacKinnon each put a hand on it but didn’t parade it around the ice.
“At the end of the day, we’re writing our own story here,” Makar said. “Whatever those guys decided, the leadership group on our team, I know it’s the correct decision.”
There were no gapped-tooth smiles in the team picture with the trophy and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, and the celebration was muted for the Avalanche.
“Everyone’s obviously happy for the opportunity that’s in front of us, but I don’t get the feeling that anyone’s satisfied,” Bednar said. “Everyone’s happy and it’s good, but that’s not why we started the season. It wasn’t our approach to it at the start, and it’s certainly real difficult to get here, but our guys are already kind of focused and we’ll be itching to go at some point soon here.”
First, the Rangers and Lightning need to settle the Eastern Conference final to see who is up next for Colorado, which has home-ice advantage regardless.
“From that series, it doesn’t matter at all,” Rantanen said. “Whoever comes, that’s who we play. We don’t care at all.”