If the Colorado Avalanche are this season’s Cardiac Kids, then Gabriel Landeskog is the fellow holding the defibrillator paddles.
He struck again Wednesday night, setting up Jamie McGinn’s goal with 0.7 seconds left in the third period to send the Avalanche’s game against the Buffalo Sabres into overtime. When overtime failed to produce a winner, Peter Mueller scored the only goal of the shootout to give Colorado a 5-4 win.
On Monday night, Landeskog scored in overtime to give the youthful Avs, who were not considered to be a playoff contender, a win over the Anaheim Ducks, his fourth game-winning goal of the season. That, combined with Wednesday’s win, vaulted the Avalanche from 11th place in the Western Conference to at least temporary possession of seventh with 80 points, pending the result of a late game involving the Phoenix Coyotes.
But the Avalanche will be no worse than eighth by Thursday in the five-team fight for the last two playoff spots, although the other four teams have at least one game in hand on them.
The Sabres also kept up the pace in the Eastern Conference race for the last playoff spot. While it was heart-breaking to lose a regulation win with less than a second to go, the point from the shootout loss pulled them within three points of the eighth-place Washington Capitals.
Landeskog seems to have this whole rookie thing backwards. At the point in the season where most rookies are wearing down from the rigours of an 82-game NHL season, he is playing the best hockey of his young life.
“Some of it has to do with his maturity level for a 19-year-old,” said Avs head coach Joe Sacco. “To me, he’s a little more mature than his years and he’s got a solid work ethic.
“He approaches every game like a true professional; like a guy who’s been in the league five or six years.”
Landeskog may have just 46 points in 72 games but 16 came in his last 15 games. He also leads the Avalanche (and all NHL rookies) in goals with 20, most of them coming in key situations.
“Personally, I’m just trying to help the team win,” Landeskog said. “I’m trying to play as good as I can when it really matters. This is when you have to make sure you’re on your game.”
The Sabres felt the kid’s sting early in the second period on Wednesday. With the score tied 2-2, Landeskog collared a rebound in front of Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller and stickhandled him to the ice to put Colorado ahead 3-2.
It was the sort of calm move that showed why Sacco has Landeskog on the ice in all situations despite his age.
“He plays on our power play, plays on our penalty kill, on one of the top lines, plays in the last minute of periods, the last minute of games, when we’re up a goal or down a goal,” Sacco said. “That says it all.”
Landeskog’s play over the last month put him in the conversation with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins about the Calder Trophy, the NHL’s rookie-of-the-year award. Nugent-Hopkins, who was taken first overall in last year’s entry draft, just ahead of Landeskog, was the favourite until Landeskog caught fire in February. Landeskog is flattered but has other things on his mind.
“Rookie of the year would be a tremendous honour but to me it’s about trying to get in that playoff spot. That’s all that matters,” he said. “It’s up to me to help the team win. That’s all I’m focusing on.”
There is no doubt Landeskog will be captain of the Avalanche some day. He was the first European captain of his junior team, the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League. He carries himself with the quiet air of a leader, befitting someone who successfully moved by himself at the age of 16 from Sweden to Canada to play major-junior hockey.
“Definitely, confidence is a huge part of hockey,” Landeskog said, admitting his is pretty high right now. “It’s about believing in yourself and not losing that swagger. Always go out there and show what you can do.”