Andre Burakovsky works his way into Avalanche lore with Stanley Cup Game 1 winner

DENVER – When Andre Burakovsky first came to North America to play junior hockey in the Ontario league, his highest-profile Erie Otters teammate noticed him immediately. Not many players can skate well enough to keep up with Connor McDavid, after all.

“I remember that the first time being on the ice with Burakovsky was pretty eye-opening,” the now-Oilers star told The Athletic. “He had a great year there in Erie, has moved on and done great in the NHL.”

McDavid remembers how his new teammate moved at age 18, and he saw the way he could shoot the puck. His shot was elite then, zipping past goaltenders all across Ontario, and it’s elite now.

Because of it, the Avalanche have a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final.

“He hides his release really well, and when he lets it go, he really slugs it,” teammate Bowen Byram said shortly after Burakovsky scored the overtime winner in Game 1 on Wednesday, handing Colorado a 4-3 victory over Tampa Bay. “He’s a goal scorer.”

Burakovsky’s postseason has been defined by stops and starts. He’s a 22-goal scorer with a dynamic skill set, but his inconsistency led Jared Bednar to scratch him for two games in the second round. Then, shortly after getting back in the lineup, he suffered a suspected foot injury blocking a shot from Edmonton’s Evan Bouchard. That kept him out of two Western Conference final contests and likely is still ailing him, considering he’s recently taken multiple maintenance days.

But Burakovsky pushed through both setbacks – the scratches and the injury – and he played a dozen crucial minutes Wednesday against the mighty Lightning, who have won back-to-back Stanley Cups.

“I thought he was really solid tonight: managed the puck really well, didn’t have any turnovers, checked hard,” Bednar said. “When he gets opportunities, he can put the puck in the net. All-around game for him. ”

Burakovsky’s biggest moment came less than two minutes into overtime. He watched as linemate JT Compher burst into the offensive zone and unleashed a shot toward the seemingly unbreakable Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa’s goalie. Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman blocked the shot, though, and it bounced to Valeri Nichushkin. Burakovsky, meanwhile, glided into the faceoff circle, where he received a perfect pass from Nichushkin.

The forward’s wrists burst into motion, unloading on the moving puck. It soared toward the net, past Vasilevskiy’s outstretched skate and over the line. The horn sounded, and the game was done.

“I wasn’t thinking too much,” Burakovsky said. “It was kind of a crazy feeling. Just being able to be here in this final and to help the team get a win, it was a nice feeling. ”

The winger skated away from the net and dropped to a knee, punching the air three times before his teammates mobbed him. He had struggled sleeping the night before and woke up at 6 am because he couldn’t wait for the game.

He ended up his hero.

“It was great,” Mikko Rantanen said. “He’s been playing well lately and sure deserves it.”

This isn’t the first time Burakovsky has come through in a big moment. A 2013 first-round pick by Washington, he helped the Capitals to a 2018 championship, assisting on Lars Eller’s Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 5. He also scored twice in Game 7 of that year’s Eastern Conference final. The goalie he faced that night? Vasilevskiy.

Despite Burakovsky’s big-game moments with Washington, his off-ice personality elicits more of a reaction from former teammates. Alex Ovechkin took a three-second pause when asked earlier this year to reminisce about the winger, then started laughing.

“Everybody loves him here,” the Capitals captain told The Athletic. “He’s a fun guy, takes jokes all the time.”

Tom Wilson, one of Burakovsky’s close friends on the Capitals, remembers teammates stealing Burakovsky’s underwear from his locker, forcing him to walk home in just his sweatpants. It wasn’t mean-spirited, Wilson said, and Burakovsky was in on the fun, often getting involved in various locker room prank battles.

“That’s what makes coming to the rink so fun, and that’s what makes our job so fun: when you have those bonds and those teammates that you can come into the rink with and laugh every day,” Wilson said earlier this year.

Burakovsky’s goofiness has led to him filling a similar role with the Avalanche. In pre-Stanley Cup practices, for example, captain and fellow Swede Gabriel Landeskog jokingly jumped on top of him on the ice, leading Nathan MacKinnon and Rantanen to break up the fake scuffle.

“He’s got some airhead things he does once in a while, so you’ve got to give it to him a little bit,” former Avalanche teammate Tyson Jost said. “You can’t let him off the hook.”

His personality makes him someone teammates like to see succeed. Just ask Wilson.

“I woke up to 7-8 texts from close friends that were so genuinely excited for him. It says a lot about who he (is)! ” the Capitals forward said in a message to The Athletic. “Liked by everybody. I’m really happy for him. ”

As goofy as Burakovsky can be away from the ice, he’s also hard on himself and worked with a sports psychologist the summer before coming to Colorado. That helped improve his mindset. Though he still expects a lot from himself – he broke a stick at practice earlier this year because he was frustrated at his performance in a power-play drill – he believes he has more perspective than he did with the Capitals, who traded him to the Avalanche in June 2019. He believes Colorado marked a needed fresh start.

“It was really good to try something new and get a new opportunity somewhere else,” he said.

And this season, as he prepares to enter free agency, Burakovsky set a career high in goals (22), points (61) and time on ice (16:16).

“Burky can really put it in the back of the net,” MacKinnon said earlier in the year. “He’s a really special player.”

Bednar describes Burakovsky as a streaky player. When he’s on, he’s a dynamic talent who can play with top-notch players. When he’s not, he’s prone to costly turnovers. Considering his contract status, it’s possible he’s playing in his final few games for Colorado. The Avalanche will have cap space this summer, but the likes of Nazem Kadri, Nichushkin and goalie Darcy Kuemper are also set to hit the market. Joe Sakic and the front office will have to decide who they have room to bring back.

But contract offers and hard decisions can wait for another day. All that mattered Wednesday was a blazing shot good enough to beat a world-class goalie. All that mattered was an overtime moment that will go down in Avalanche lore.

(Photo of Andre Burakovsky (95), Josh Manson (42) and Logan O’Connor (25): Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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