DENVER – Gabriel Landeskog is sitting on the event level of Ball Arena trying to avert his gaze.
The captain of the Colorado Avalanche doesn’t want to get blinded by the shine.
Buffed and gleaming, the Stanley Cup has been propped up proudly inside his team’s arena for the first time in 21 years, when then-captain and current general manager Joe Sakic was handed the most beautiful trophy in sports. The hardest to earn, too.
Escaping a killer dry heat, all the principals involved in this championship have gathered on Media Day to hype up what should be an epic showdown between the best playoff team of the past three years and the best regular-season team over that span.
And as they heap praise on their teammates and pay respect to the titan in the other conference, the world’s greatest carrot is dangling in plain view, a blank space for their names right there on the bottom ring.
“I don't want to stare at it too much,” says Landeskog, turning his head away from the sparkly reflection. “The presence of the Stanley Cup — you can feel the buzz of the city, and it’s motivating. It’s very exciting.”
“I would definitely not touch it,” added Avs goalie Pavel Francouz. “But I think I can look at it and say nice things about it.”
Quick, before the puck drops. Before someone makes a costly mistake or hits someone high or lets in a softy, only nice things can be said about the Avalanche and their formidable opponent, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
In one corner, you have the 12-2 Avalanche, whose second sweep of the postseason earned them an extra week to rest up and, hopefully, heal up for the steepest peak in their ascent. Starting goalie Darcy Kuemper, injured against Edmonton, is “100 per cent healthy,” according to Sakic. Second-line centre Nazem Kadri (thumb) and 1,140-game veteran Andrew Cogliano (finger) are trying to get there.
In the other corner, you have a resilient, ravenous group, still hungry to win its 12 consecutive series and fourth this spring without home-ice advantage. A threepeat, the NHL’s first since the early-’80s New York Islanders, would cement the Lightning as the greatest franchise of the salary-cap era.
“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty. We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy,” says Colorado defenceman Cale Makar.
Makar is but one of a handful (or two?) of protagonists in this Final that could end up in the Hall of Fame someday.
The Lightning enter this best-of-seven with instructions in hand. They know how it’s done.
The Avalanche only believe they can win. So, they must trust that they can figure it out, the way they figured out how to hurdle the second round after three failed attempts.
“It's awesome. I mean, this is what we live for. I don't think anyone [here] would trade places with anyone else in the whole world,” Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon says. “We feel alive right now. We're excited. Nervous energy. So it's great. I mean, it's not supposed to be super comfortable.
“I'm glad we're playing Tampa. We're playing the best. There's no Cinderella story or anything. Two of the best teams in the league going out there, and I'm really excited for this challenge.”
Yes, Landeskog agrees, the Avalanche haven’t met an opponent as deep or accomplished as the Lightning yet. But Tampa hasn’t faced a test quite like Colorado either.
Intriguing mini battles will abound, and the actual hockey should exceed the storylines.
Two thirds of the Norris Trophy finalists are present, with the dynamic Makar and steadfast Victor Hedman quarterbacking their respective sides.
Lightning shutdown man Anthony Cirelli will have his hands full with the tornado that is Nathan MacKinnon, just as the vaunted Avalanche defence should be challenged by the creativity and experience wielded by the likes of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.
Surely, the unflappable Andrei Vasilevskiy gives the champs an edge in the paint over Kuemper, but the Avalanche is scoring at a such an elite clip in these playoffs (4.64 goals per game, to Tampa’s 3.06), even the Lightning may not be able to suffocate their outbursts. Which are triggered by a dynamic blue line and carried through the neutral zone with pep.
“Our speed is something that's unmatched by any team in this league right now. Our team speed is just incredible. We play the game fast. We play the game hard. We’re kinda relentless in our offensive attack,” Avs defenceman Devon Toews says.
“There's good teams in the East, too. They've had to go through some big animals. Toronto and Florida and New York are all big animals in this league right now. I just think we're a little bit of a different animal.”
The Animal versus the Monster.
That’s how former Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella described what his 2019 team spawned by sweeping the Lightning in Round 1 of that year.
Tampa hasn’t lost since, and all Cooper can do is sit back and marvel at his own players, looking to tack on another chapter to hockey’s longest streak of success in 39 years.
“To watch their growth, watch the pain…. maybe Torts was right. Maybe he did create a monster. I'm utterly impressed by what they do to win a hockey game. And the fact that they have every excuse in the world to not,” Cooper says.
“Because nobody would fault them for saying, hey, you won one, you won two. And to come back and go for a third? I’m damn impressed by this group.”
Before Landeskog steps away from the microphone he allows himself to sneak a peek at the prize they’re all playing for. Damn, that Cup is impressive.
“You are close, and obviously it’s so much more realistic now,” allows Landeskog, before straightening his game face. “But at the same time, we’re only three quarters of the way there.
"It’s still going to be a grind."
They wouldn’t have it any other way.