Two of the best players in Avalanche history skate toward a crossroads for a hockey team that has run out of excuses for failure.

Right here, right now, Colorado must win the Stanley Cup. Or something needs to change, because even teenage phenoms eventually grow old. Worry lines now frame the eyes of Nathan MacKinnon and the hockey wars have scarred Gabe Landeskog.

“I think everybody realizes what a team we have in (that dressing room) and what an opportunity this is,” Lankeskog said Monday. “I’m sitting here in my 11th season and Nate’s in his ninth. You don’t get that many cracks at the can, especially with a team like this.”

At the outset of an opening-round series in which there will be angst if Colorado doesn’t quickly dispose of our old pal Matt Duchene and the Nashville Predators, let’s start this quest for the franchise’s first championship since 2001 with a statistic that boggles the mind:

MacKinnon and Landeskog, both impact players from the moment they pulled on a Colorado sweater as teenagers, have combined for 490 goals, not to mention 1,219 points, in their NHL careers.

But between them, Landy and Kid Mack have won 25 playoff games. Total.

Their mission now, in this Cup-or-bust season, is 16 Ws. Anything less will be regarded as failure.

Are they ready for this grind? There’s no doubt MacKinnon and Landeskog have the skills to start a new golden age of Avalanche hockey.

But with only three playoff series victories between them, if Colorado trips over its rave reviews again when the games matter most, general manager Joe Sakic will need to ask: What’s missing? We’re all out of patience. The Avs win it all now, or perhaps a major roster shakeup would be necessary to get this team over the hump.

The NHL playoffs are where legends are made. Or tarnished. Landeskog is 29 years old. MacKinnon is 26. If this core group of Avs has really grown up, now is the time for Landy and Kid MacK to show it.

“We’re going to have to drive the bus. We know that,” MacKinnon said.

It’s one of the oldest truths in hockey: To hoist the Cup, the Avs’ top players have to be their top players, eh?

The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in North American sports to win. Top-caliber teams fall victim to upset more often than the tournaments contested by professional football, basketball and baseball players.

“Another year has gone by,” Landeskog said, “and the hunger is that much more.”

The road to the Cup is fraught with heartbreak and anxious moments that dare even a talented team to fold, as we saw a year ago, when the Avalanche choked in the second round against Las Vegas, shocked by a playoff run that abruptly ended with four consecutive humbling losses.

This is the deepest Colorado lineup of goal-scorers, not to mention the most well-rounded group of blue-liners, Sakic has ever assembled. Darcy Kuemper won’t be the best goalie in the playoffs, but if he holds up under the physical and mental strain, the Avs can win a championship with him between the pipes.

Not to dismiss the Predators, capable of mucking up the open ice favored by Colorado, but if all-star Nashville goalie Juuse Saros proves physically unable to play a major role (he’s already been ruled out of Games 1 and 2), the Avs should breeze through the opening round.

Hey, we’ve seen that movie in the past, when the Avs start hot, only to flame out quickly in the playoffs.



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