CENTENNIAL, Colo. -- Joe Sakic had one goal in mind when he accepted the position as Colorado Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations in May: Bring the franchise back to the elite status it had when he twice won the Stanley Cup as captain.
The Avalanche have a long way to go, but they took a major step this season against all odds by winning the Central Division and gaining a place in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in four years. The Avalanche open the Western Conference First Round on Thursday at Pepsi Center against the Minnesota Wild (9:30 p.m. ET; CNBC, RDS, TSN, FS-N, ALT).
"There's no better playoffs than hockey playoffs, and it's great to be back in it," Sakic said Wednesday at the Avalanche's practice facility. "I'm excited for the players and obviously the organization and the fans here in Denver. I'm very proud of this group, what they've accomplished this year, but I also know that this is a group that wants more.
"The regular season's over and there's no better time than to be a fan of hockey and a player in hockey and in management in hockey than this time of year. We all shoot for the Stanley Cup. Every single player and every single team is hoping to be playing for two more months."
After finishing last in the conference a year ago and 29th in the NHL standings, the Avalanche matched the franchise record with 52 wins under coach Patrick Roy, and their 112 points were the second-highest total in team history. Roy became the fifth coach in League history to win 50 games in his first season.
"I'm proud of this group," said Sakic, whose first move as an executive was to hire Roy. "It's a group that expected a lot of themselves. The players that were here last year obviously weren't happy with the way it ended and got a fresh start and wanted a fresh start. The change in the coaching staff got a lot of respect from them. They really worked well together, the coaching staff and the players. They fed off of that and got off to a good start and it got the momentum going.
"It's a team that doesn't quit. We've had injuries during the year and it didn't stop them. They believe in each other, and this time of year it's that belief, sticking together and being as consistent as you can, that usually decides the champion."
Colorado has many young players, including 18-year-old rookie Nathan MacKinnon, who remind Sakic of his early days with the Quebec Nordiques, who struggled and grew together before the team was sold and moved to Denver for the 1995-96 season. Renamed the Avalanche, they won the Stanley Cup their first season in Colorado.
"Especially last year, I knew what they were going through," Sakic said. "I was on some teams that had tough times. [The Nordiques] were building and we were going in the right direction. I knew with the type of players that we had ... I didn't think it was going to take that long. It was just a matter of them believing in each other and believing what they can do, adjusting to the League.
"Patrick instilled that same confidence in our players. We got off to a very good start this year, which was our goal. We wanted to get off to a good start, especially with this fan base, and they've done a tremendous job on and off the ice. Confidence is a big thing, especially for a young team. I know when I went through it, the biggest thing is learning how to win. Once you figure that out -- I'm not going to say it's easy -- you know that path. The hardest thing to do with a young team is learning how to win. That's a process."
The Avalanche won their first six games and 12 of the first 13. They didn't lose more than three consecutive games in regulation all season (it happened once) and went 8-0-1 down the stretch to clinch a playoff berth and overtake the St. Louis Blues for the division title.
Sakic said he began to realize this could be a special season when the Avalanche continued to play well through Christmas without any significant slumps.
"There were no signs of a letdown," he said. "What you see in this group, they expected a lot of themselves and there's not one point this season where you thought they were getting complacent, that they were content with the success they were having. We knew what we had in our team, but to watch the players and to see how they believed in each other ... they believed in each other from Day One. It's a team that's resilient. They've never taken their success for granted, they always tried to raise the bar, and that's the type of guys we have here. We clinched the playoffs and they could have taken some shortcuts after that, but they weren't satisfied.
"The confidence kept growing and their belief and their expectations kept growing and we're here. I know what the expectations are with the players, and they want to win the Stanley Cup."
Roy exhibited a fiery temperament as a player, and he put that on display in the regular-season opener against the Anaheim Ducks. Roy got into a shouting match with Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau at the end of the game and nearly toppled the glass partition between the benches with a two-handed shove.
Roy rarely showed anger after that, and Sakic credits his former teammate's calming demeanor and patience as a teacher for much of the Avalanche success.
"Obviously he's a passionate guy, just sticking up for his [team]. It wasn't his fault that the glass was loose," Sakic said, smiling. "I've seen coaches snap. But he's not like that with the players. He's been very patient with the players. There's a mutual respect; he's very calm and on the teaching path, and he's instilled confidence in all the players.
"He's shown respect to the players right from the start. He used the term 'being in partnership' with the players. Patrick and the entire coaching staff did an unbelievable job right from Day One when it came to teaching and getting that respect from the players."
Now that the playoffs are here, Sakic is confident the lack of postseason experience won't be a problem.
"You don't know how different players will handle it, but this is going to be a great experience for them," he said. "You can gain that experience and win hockey games at the same time. We know we have a tough opponent in Minnesota. Just like us, they played unbelievable hockey down the stretch and they're playing their best hockey at the right time as well. It's going to be a great series.
"At the end of the day, it's a grind and the team that outlasts the rest of them is going to win. You're going to have adverse times in the playoffs. The biggest thing is stick to what you know, stick to your game plan, stay resilient, battle for one another. This is a team that expects a lot from themselves. We have some guys who are going to learn on the fly when it comes to first-time playoff experience, but I'm a big believer that if you play the right way and don't cheat out there, then you can have success. You can get that experience while winning. The way the team has reacted all year, expecting more and playing with that consistency, is going to do them well in the playoffs."