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Captain’s crunch: Gritty Landeskog leads Avs back to final

Sean Leahy breaks down the Boston Bruins firing Bruce Cassidy and where the coach could be heading after the team had an early playoff exit this season.

DENVER (AP) — Gabriel Landeskog kept his patience even as everyone scattered in every direction at practice. Not exactly paying attention, the players were acting like a bunch of 2- and 3-year-olds — because they were.

Coach Gabe kept things calm while he was in charge of his young daughter’s soccer team this spring. Captain Gabe radiates cool as the longtime leader of a Colorado Avalanche team headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001.

He’s grown up with the “C” emblazoned on his jersey, taking over the responsibility at just 19 years, 286 days old. He’s learned all about leadership in the decade he’s been captain, most notably this: Just be himself, because his work ethic carries a lot of clout.

It’s a style that served another longtime captain well in Joe Sakic, who led the Avalanche to a pair of Stanley Cup titles (1996, ’01) and is now the team’s general manager.

“If you’re going to start faking things and trying to pretend to be something you’re not, people will see right through that,” said the 29-year-old Landeskog, whose team is waiting to face either two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay or the New York Rangers. “Be yourself and things will follow.”

Even strong leaders, though, seek advice on complicated issues. Like this: About to be presented the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for winning the Western Conference after a sweep of Edmonton, Landeskog turned to Sakic for guidance. Should players put their hands on this piece of hardware or steer clear in keeping with hockey superstition that it’s bad luck when a more important trophy is still possible.

“He was like, ‘Do whatever you want. Touch it. Don’t touch it. It doesn’t matter,’” recounted Landeskog, whose team posed with the trophy — and did touch it, for the record — but didn’t bring it into the locker room. “It’s important to enjoy the journey and important to enjoy the moment.”

His responsibilities include providing grit on a line that features Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin. The left winger hangs out in the tough places, often in front of goaltenders, and he sticks up for his teammates on the ice and off. After Nazem Kadri was knocked out of the Oilers series by Evander Kane, the captain was clear: “Don’t like it.”

It’s all that — plus a witty sense of humor — which has earned him nothing but respect around the room.

“Probably the best captain I’ve played for,” said defenseman Cale Makar, who filmed a comical commercial with the captain. “He’s able to sneak in those right moments when we need his voice but at the same time he’s consistent for us every night playing with that same physical force.”

When Landeskog was appointed captain on Sept. 4, 2012, he was no more than a kid himself. At the time, the forward from Sweden was the youngest in the NHL to assume the role. That distinction was eclipsed in 2016 by Edmonton’s promotion of Connor McDavid (19 years, 266 days).

No doubt, this season has been Landeskog’s finest work. He was leading the team in goals (30) in the regular season when he underwent knee surgery on March 14. He wanted to be closer to full strength for a long postseason run. Back in time for the playoffs, he’s scored eight goals, picked up nine assists and is third on the team in hits.

“Very in tune with what we’re trying to accomplish as a team,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said of the player taken second overall by Colorado in 2011. “He understands all of the personalities and their tendencies in our locker room, attitudinally.

“He’s in a position to help guys out and comfort them when they need it — and give them a kick in the (rear) when they need it, and give them a pat on the back when they need it.”

His lighter side shined through in a series of commercials with his family. In one episode, Landeskog showed up wearing a “C” on his sweater for a family picture with his wife and two kids (” because I’m the family captain, ” he proudly proclaimed). Another saw him stepping on a toy and fighting back tears as his wife asked what’s wrong.

He also found time to coach that soccer team, too, with the season recently ending.

“It’s awesome coming home to the kids, and they’re buzzing around and want to go to the park,” said Landeskog. “So that’s been great.”

Much like Sakic, Landeskog prefers to lead by example, helping the Avalanche go 12-2 — with two series sweeps — to secure their spot in the final. And much like Sakic, he’s trying to join him as a Colorado captain who’s lifted the Cup.

“At the end of the day, it’s a group effort,” Landeskog said of leadership. “I think we’ve got tons of leaders.”