DENVER - Andre Burakovsky could barely sleep the night before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Having already climbed to the top of hockey's highest mountain with that magical Washington Capitals squad in 2018, one would think that Burakovsky would be somewhat attuned to the pressure cooker of the Final. But the 27-year-old was unable to contain his excitement about the series ahead this time around, telling reporters about how he awoke at 6 am on Wednesday morning ready to hop out of bed and onto the ice.
"Just wait until you have kids," remarked Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog, who was seated next to Burakovsky at the post-game media podium, with a smirk.
"You'll be up at 6 every day"
You can't blame Burakovsky for being anxious to get back on the ice as soon as possible, really. The speedy winger is hungry to contribute for the surging Avalanche once again, having struggled to this point in the postseason with both on-production and injuries.
It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that Burakovsky hasn't played his best hockey of late, entering Wednesday's contest with just one goal and five points in 10 games.
Game 1 offered a shot at redemption, however, and he took it, finishing off a pretty passing play to bang home the game-winner less than two minutes into overtime and give the Avalanche a 1-0 series lead.
So much for those early-morning nerves.
Cup ring aside, though, the next two weeks represent a massively important stretch of hockey for Burakvosky's future. With the two-year, $9.8 million contract he signed back in 2020 about to expire in the coming weeks, Burakovsky is set to hit the open market while standing smack dab in the middle of his prime, positioning him to command what will almost certainly end up being the most lucrative contract of his career.
If his resume stopped after the regular season, he'd be a no-brainer.
Burakovsky had a wonderful 2021-22 campaign for the Avalanche, racking up 22 goals and 61 points in 80 games while posting stellar results when it came to both expected goals and scoring chance generation. His presence gave Colorado's forward corps a semblance of depth that was nearly impossible to counter, with Burakovsky's combination of deft skill packed inside a 6'3 frame giving coach Jared Bednar a versatile winger equally capable of thriving in his team's top- or bottom-six.
The playoffs, on the other hand, have been a different story.
Injuries and inconsistency have slowed Burakovsky through the first three rounds, limiting his team's trademark depth and forcing the Avs' big guns such as Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and, before his injury, Nazem Kadri to carry a heavier load.
In that span, Burakovsky's underlying numbers have gone from positive to somewhat negative -- his expected goal share dropping from 51.92 percent in the regular season to 46.57 percent in the playoffs; his scoring chance share going from 54.23 percent to 51.69 percent. Even Burakovsky's usage dropped significantly as the playoffs wore on, with Bednar limiting him to under 10 minutes of ice time in two of his past five games and even scratching him for Games 4 and 5 of the Avs' second-round series versus the St. Louis Blues.
Even with his impressive regular season, Burakovsky's postseason performance was sure to leave a bad taste in the mouth of potential future employers.
But a new series brings with it a clean slate. And Burakovsky took advantage of the fresh start Game 1 provided, using his big frame to dominate along the boards in all three zones while helping the Avalanche generate 64.66 percent of the expected goals and 66.67 percent of the available scoring chances during his even-strength ice time, and earning the right to be on the ice roughly 90 seconds into overtime in the first place before scoring the winner.
Bednar saw a player desperate to provide value. So, he gave him a chance to, and it paid off in the most opportune way possible.
"I thought he was really solid tonight," offered Bednar of his resurgent winger.
"Managed the puck really well. Didn't have any turnovers. Checked hard. Was getting above pucks. Skating well. That's what Burky can do. You put him in a spot, and he can finish. He's a streaky scorer, and when he gets opportunities, he can put the puck in the net. All-around game for him tonight. I thought it was really strong."
With Burakovsky and Darren Helm being the only two members of this Avalanche squad to have won a Stanley Cup in their career, that experience has become more vital to the team's championship pursuit than ever.
For the majority of the roster, this is their first trip past even the second round, in fact, thus bringing forth a new brand of pressure with each passing series that, to some players, can be crushing. Having teammates who have been there before helps. Having them be important contributors helps even more.
"I've been through it and I kind of know what to expect and know the pace," explained Burakovsky of his ability to navigate the moment.
"I feel like I've been there and know the situation and what's at stake. So, yeah, that helped"
Burakovsky seemed like a player mighty acclimatized to the pressure on Wednesday night. Rather than melting under the spotlight's blistering heat, he relished it, playing arguably his best game of the postseason and, in the process, returning to his team one of the key weapons behind their torrid success.
Hockey is far more enjoyable when you're playing well. Burakovsky, only minutes removed from perhaps the biggest goal of his career, reiterated exactly that.
"I wasn't thinking too much. It was kind of a crazy feeling," said Burakovsky.
"I'm just so grateful to be here in this Final and to help the team win a game. So, it was a nice feeling for sure,"
If Game 1 is any indication, more nice feelings await in the days ahead.