DENVER – Gabriel Landeskog was a surprising pick as the Colorado Avalanche captain last season, but he showed what kind of leader he is in his first NHL playoff game.
Landeskog set the early tone Thursday for his team in Game 1 of its Western Conference quarterfinal series with the Wild, which the Avalanche won 5-4 in overtime. His goal at 13 minutes, 14 seconds of the first period gave Colorado a 1-0 lead.
“It kind of gets that monkey off your back, especially coming in Game 1,” Landeskog said, referring to scoring the first goal. “You want to come out and be that presence out there. For me, that’s playing physical and scoring a goal.”
He showed his physical side when he delivered a big hit on Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin just before his goal. Landeskog said that helped settle any nerves he felt at the start.
“A lot of people when they go into a game are nervous, they say take a hit or give a hit. That’s kind of the mentality,” Landeskog said. “You get roughed up and you get right into it. That was the feeling tonight.”
Landeskog quickly proved he was deserving of being named captain at age 19, becoming the youngest captain in NHL history just 15 months after he was the second pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft.
There were older and safer picks for the position — Paul Stastny, Erik Johnson and Matt Duchene were established young veterans — but what might have looked like a gimmicky choice at the time turned out to be the right one.
“Even at 18 years old, he was comfortable speaking up and he showed a lot of character and leadership,” said Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Colorado’s 36-year-old backup goaltender. “It was the right move at the time.”
His tenure got off to a rough start. After the lockout ended in January 2013, the Avalanche won just 16 games in the 48-game season and finished 29th out of 30 NHL teams.
“It was hard my first year being on a losing team,” Landeskog said. “Being so young, too. You hear that when the team plays well it’s easy to be a leader but when times are rough, it’s harder.
“This season, I wouldn’t say [it’s been] easy, but I’ve gone about my business and done my thing and worked hard and tried to be an example.”
Last season helped him grow into the job. “I said from Day 1, when they named me the captain, I wasn’t going to be the perfect captain,” he said.
“A lot [is] put on your shoulders, but I like that. That’s who I am. I feel good with that responsibility and I feel good being that guy where guys look to you. It’s something that makes me better.”
The responsibility hasn’t impacted his play. Landeskog set personal highs in goals (26), assists (39) and points (65) in 81 games this season.
“I’ve grown so much as a person in the year and a half since I was named the captain,” Landeskog said.
So has the Avalanche. “He really put his stamp on this team,” Giguere said.
And now he can add playoff experience to his résumé.
“It beat all my expectations,” Landeskog said. “Now first game is out of the way.”