Wearing a dark blue suit with a white pocket square, gabriel landeskog Drove to a fellow carpooler Nathan MacKinnonIt’s the morning after Game 5. The frustration from the night before hadn’t faded. Landeskog knew that if his team had taken care of business, the players would be celebrating right now, bathing in the adulation of the city’s fans.
Instead, the captain was spending half an hour in his car taking a ride he didn’t want to take, all to get on a plane he didn’t want to board.
He and MacKinnon tried to take the right path as they headed to the Denver airport. They talked about 2016 penguinswho lost Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at home against the sharksthen won the series in San Jose in Game 6. The Blues They lost a chance to win the Cup in St. Louis in 2019, they recalled, and then they won Game 7 in Boston. If those teams could do it, surely the Avalanche could too.
But, even though Colorado was 8-1 in road games in the playoffs, Landeskog wasn’t in a good place mentally as he walked down the track to the team’s 10 am flight. By bringing to light past winners and the challenges they’ve overcome, he and MacKinnon were trying to convince themselves to believe.
Fortunately for the captain, Andres Cogliano, the most experienced player on the team, had an idea. He approached Landeskog and MacKinnon on the plane. The veteran thought the team could use a restart. He suggested a meeting. Nothing formal, just a chance for everyone to share how they felt.
“He had some things he wanted to say,” Cogliano said.
Landeskog hadn’t called a players-only meeting all year, but he agreed with Cogliano that the time seemed right. He put a message in the team group text, telling the players to be in the dining room at 6:30 p.m.
The Tampa JW Marriott is less than a block from Amalie Arena and a two-minute walk from the water where the Lightning held championship boat parades the previous two years. The 26-story building features spacious rooms and a ground-floor bar, a perfect place for Avalanche executives, owners, and player families to grab drinks on nights off during the Stanley Cup Final.
In MacKinnon’s mind, the building boded well, or at least his room assignment before Game 6 did. He was delighted when he learned he had been given room No. 1787 because sidney crosby, his idol and friend, wears the number 87 for Pittsburgh. He immediately told Cogliano, who is also a friend of Crosby’s. The two laughed.
“We both felt like fate,” MacKinnon said on ESPN the following night. “We both love Sid, and we knew we were going to win when I got the room number.”
Perhaps connecting the room number to the team’s destination was an exaggeration. But as Cogliano later said, hockey players are always looking for a mental edge in the playoffs. And why wouldn’t they? In a game based on the unpredictable rebounds of a six-ounce rubber puck, why not hold on to anything that makes you believe?
Crosby played a role in a much more direct sense than the room number. As one of the few people who could relate to MacKinnon’s situation, he reached out to his friend, knowing that he was probably hurt.
“Sometimes you need a reminder that it’s a series,” Crosby said. “Regardless of what’s at stake, you have to remember that it’s not easy to win.”
The night the Avalanche arrived in Tampa, their dinner was chicken, salmon and steak in their food court, a second-floor ballroom. Players sat at half a dozen tables and some had already finished by 6:30. Those still eating stopped when Landeskog, seated at his table, began the meeting. He opened with a general statement, opening the floor for anyone to speak.
The 5-foot-10 Cogliano got up from his seat and walked to the front of the tables so he could face his teammates. pavel francouz I didn’t really know what was going on. Cogliano looked like a coach. Then he started to speak.
“It was like a movie,” Francouz said.
Cogliano spoke about the difficulty he had had staying in the present before and during the Avalanche’s Game 5 loss. He was understandable, and he supposed that other players had felt the same way. The Stanley Cup had been in the building, ready to be hoisted. But worry doesn’t help production, and even if the Avalanche hadn’t played terribly that night, they hadn’t done well enough to finish off back-to-back Cup winners. They hadn’t played like champions.
However, the good news was that the team still had two chances to win a game. There was no reason for the players to get depressed, Cogliano said. It was okay that the Avalanche hadn’t played their best in Game 5, they didn’t lose through carelessness, but they had to learn from that. Players had to overcome the temptation to anticipate too much. If they played their style of hockey, they were going to be successful.
For the players, hearing that Cogliano felt the same as them was key. Francouz said, “He was speaking for me, too,” when the forward mentioned the stress of Game 5. Landeskog noted heads nodding around the room. Logan O’Connor, one of the least experienced forwards on the team, said he had felt guilty for getting ahead of himself during the previous night’s game. The speech showed him that he was not alone.
“It was like so much raw emotion,” O’Connor said. “He just had the whole room in awe almost because whatever he was saying, everyone else was thinking.”
While listening to Cogliano’s speech, Mikko Rantanen he was surprised by how long the veteran had been in the league. This was a guy who had played 1,140 regular-season games and 115 more in the playoffs. He had put his body through 15 full seasons and, at 35, this was the closest he had come to a Stanley Cup. Rantanen wanted to win for himself, but he wanted to win for players like Cogliano, jack johnsonY erik johnsonalso: veterans who had played so long but had yet to win.
At the end of his speech, Cogliano, who had been on the team for only three months and was playing with a broken finger, had the Avalanche in awe at the end of his speech. Some players were crying, Erik Johnson said.
“You never expect your fourth-string left winger to lead and inspire the group like he did,” MacKinnon said.
MacKinnon also spoke up, saying he also struggled with the weight of the moment during Game 5. It felt like a heavy day. darren helm, one of the oldest players on the team, also added his perspective. Earlier in the evening, he told Landeskog about his experience with the 2008 red wings. Detroit suffered an overtime loss at home in Game 5, then won the next game and the championship in Pittsburgh.
If anyone knew the Avalanche could bounce back in a Game 6, it was him.
The meeting only took 15 or 20 minutes. It didn’t take Cogliano long to captivate the room, to give the players exactly what they needed. The frustration and disappointment Landeskog felt that morning was gone.
“Can we play now?” the captain said as he walked with his teammates to his room.
The captain felt comfortable as he fell asleep. The Avalanche did not have to win the Stanley Cup the following night. They only had to win one game. That was pretty simple.
(Andrew Cogliano top photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)