It's not easy to put into words what advancing to the Stanley Cup Final means for any player, but to do so with a teammate who has become a best friend and been through every step of the journey since Day 1 makes the experience that much more special.
For Colorado Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, 29, who broke into the league in 2011 after being drafted second overall by the team that summer prior, his entire existence within the organization has featured Erik Johnson, 34, who was selected first overall by St. Louis in 2006, but joined the Avalanche in 2010.
When Landeskog, a fresh-faced Swede joined the team as a rookie, he was assigned as roommates on the road with Minnesota-born Johnson. The duo clicked and have become not just staples of the team throughout a little over a decade together, but inseparable best friends on and off the ice. Johnson, who has a hobby for race horsing and even is a proprietor and commercial breeder for ERJ Racing, LLC, even named one of his horses 'Landeskog.' Now, they've earned the opportunity to play for the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time ever in each of their respective careers.
"That's something that every kid dreams about that opportunity," Johnson said with an enormous toothless grin following Colorado's Game 4 overtime thriller on Monday night that clinched the Western Conference Final (WCF) and advanced the team to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2001. "It's been a long time coming. [I've spent] about 15 years in the league and about 12 in Colorado. I've been waiting a long time to have the opportunity to have a chance to play for the Cup."
For the Landeskog and Johnson in particular, the opportunity to finally play for the Stanley Cup has not come without sacrifices or hardships faced along the way. Their respective and joint journeys have been far from linear.
Early in Landeskog's career - who has now played in 738 regular season games - the winger suffered a severe concussion and most recently, had to tend to an ailment with his knee. Johnson - who has totaled 857-career regular season games - missed all but four games in the 2020-21 season primarily due to a concussion of his own.
Personal injuries aside, the pair have experienced everything from demoralizing seasons like the team's 48-point season (22-56-4) in 2016-17 - which marked the third-straight year of missing the postseason - to not reaching expectations like their three-straight frustrating losses in the Second Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs - which included winning the 2021 President's Trophy (awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the best overall record).
But despite all of the trials, tribulations, physical pain and heartache, there's been one unwavering constant shared between the duo; a belief. As leaders of the team, having a deepened appreciation for the rich history of the franchise, being fixtures in the community and prideful of the opportunity to don the logo each and every day, Landeskog and Johnson have firmly maintained that belief.
"You start making the playoffs the next year after that, you start believing, you start seeing progress, you start moving," Landeskog said after Game 4 of the WCF. "Losing in the Second Round three years in a row was tough, but you've got to trip on the finish line a few times before you cross it. For us, that's been true so far."
"Some of those down years where we were losing, it was a grind, but we stuck with it," Johnson echoed. "A lot of those guys that I've been with, we went through those hard times and those tough years. We kept our noses down and our chins up and just kept working. Just to have this opportunity to play for the Cup after so many heartbreaks and disappointments, to get that push through the Second Round and the Conference Final and now onto the Final is big."
That belief has radiated among the team, the fans and the community. Throughout the entirety of Colorado's regular season and even into their tremendous 2022 playoffs run the team has preached over and over the belief emitted from everyone on the ice, within the organization and in the stands.
"It's special to have the opportunity to have the chance to do it with [Gabe and Nathan MacKinnon]," Johnson said. "We've been knocking on the door here. Sometimes you have to learn how to lose before you can win. Sometimes that sticks with you. It's tough to go through that, it happens. We're just a resilient group. We've stuck with it."
And while Landeskog and Johnson, in particular, have much to be proud of as they've helped lead this team to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2001, they're both far from satisfied.
"The job's not done," Landeskog said. "It's going to be another tough series, but we'll get some rest here and be ready to go."