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On The Eve Of Opening Night

by Samantha Poulos / Colorado Avalanche

The big day is almost here. The one the Colorado Avalanche has been preparing all summer for.

Just like last season, Colorado will face a familiar team in its home opener and reignite a Central-Division rivalry that is sure to not disappoint.

Thursday night, the Avalanche will take the ice at the Pepsi Center to kick off its 2015-16 season against the Minnesota Wild. But this season is especially unique to the club because it marks the 20th anniversary of the Avs in the Mile High City.

“Opening night is always special and to open up at home is always fun,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “[It] gets the season started the right way. In front of the fans, you feel how excited everybody is, but every game at the Pepsi Center is special, I’m not going to lie. It’s always cool to play a game there, and I always look forward to home games.”

Playing in Denver is and always will be special for veteran forward Alex Tanguay, who says the Pepsi Center feels like home. Tanguay started playing hockey in Colorado at the age of 19, and he said he always looks forward to seeing the fans’ excitement for the start of another season.

“The building opened my first year, the first year the Avalanche started playing in this building, so it’s always nice,” Tanguay said following Wednesday’s practice. “For me, it’s sort of like home. I grew up here. A new year always brings tons of excitement and we are excited as players. We hope that with our play we’re going to translate that to our fans tomorrow night.”

For some Avalanche players, Thursday night will be their first regular season contest in a burgundy and blue sweater. For 2015 first-round draft pick Mikko Rantanen, this is the day he’s been waiting for his whole life.

Rantanen will skate on the third line with Carl Soderberg and Borna Rendulic when he makes his NHL debut in Thursday’s match.

“My goal when I came here was to make the team,” Rantanen said the day before he plays in his first contest. “Now I made the team so of course I’m happy, but I have to remember that I have to work hard. I have to be good in every practice and every game if I’m going to play here.”

Rantanen is preparing for the main event by getting some good rest, eating well, rehydrating and maybe even seeing a movie. He is trying to stay as relaxed as possible, advice given to him by older teammates this week.

“It’s a big game and I think the game will be sold out maybe, so I’m looing forward to that,” he said. “It has been my dream to play someday here, and now it’s coming tomorrow, so of course I’m excited.”

Despite playing all of his 161 games with the Boston Bruins, Soderberg is making not only his Colorado debut but he will be starting in his inaugural season with a Western Conference team.

“It’s my first season here with the Avalanche, and I’m really excited to help my teammates and get a good start here and get going,” the pre-draft acquisition said about opening night. “It’s been a long summer for all of us. We all missed the playoffs and [its] been a couple of months and now after the preseason it’s time to go.”

While both rookies and veterans usually stick to their routines by preparing for each game the same way, day of and evening before, the excitement mixed in with a few nerves and jitters are emotions that can’t be shaken.

Despite the feelings leading up to the 7 p.m. puck drop, Landeskog and the rest of his teammates are focused on the task at hand.

“Once the game starts, you are focused on the game,” he said. “It’s hard to realize actually how many people are in the building supporting you.”

Fans have been counting down the days to October for many months now, and the players are also looking forward to skating in front of the home crowd.

“I was a healthy scratch for a preseason game and I was watching from the stands, and that’s really when you get a chance to look around and observe and see how many people actually come to the games, which is cool,” Landeskog said. “Definitely something that maybe once you’re done playing you realize and sit back and look that there’s really thousands at every game.”

There’s much to prove for the Avalanche as the team is in the spotlight many times this season with 12 nationally televised bouts—highlighted by the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series on NBC in late February—but the players are keeping their eye on the prize.

As a seasoned veteran, Tanguay looks forward to the thrills of the anniversary season, but the end goal for the team is still the same.

“We’re trying to get back to the level that we think we should be at, and that level needs to be accomplished on the ice,” he said Wednesday. “We’re looking forward to playing the games to prove ourselves and to make sure that we do things the right way and hopefully that will bring us success.”

Thursday night is just round one of the 82-game campaign, and getting off to a successful start is crucial for any team in their road to the postseason.

“We think we have a good enough team to have tons of success, and now you’re only as good as what you prove on the ice and we’re going to try to prove that as much as possible,” Tanguay said. “We know the importance of a start. I think last year taught us a lot so we’re ready to go, and we’re going to give it our best effort tomorrow night and see what comes out of it.”

The wait for the big day is almost over and the story continues on a fresh, clean page.

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