In an exclusive interview at the University of Michigan a week after being traded to the Avalanche, J.T. Compher told me he was excited to join the young Avalanche core.
Compher was acquired along with Mikhail Grigorenko, Nikita Zadorov and the 31st overall pick in 2015 for former Avs forwards Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
“I think anytime you join a team with a captain like Gabriel Landeskog leading a young team, you expect to be successful in the future,” the former Michigan Wolverines captain said one year before attending his first training camp with the Avalanche. “I just want to come in and be a difference-maker someday. That’s the least they can expect from me I think.”
Nearly four years later, Compher delivered on his promise.
Facing elimination against the San Jose Sharks, the Avalanche hosted Game 6 in front of an over-capacity sold-out Pepsi Center crowd searching for a hero to give them a chance at a winner-take-all Game 7 scenario. They say heroes are born in the playoffs, and on Monday Compher became a hero to the Avalanche faithful. The third-year Avs forward recorded two goals and one assist in regulation, before Landeskog scored the game-winner 2:32 into overtime to extend the series for another game.
“It felt good to contribute tonight,” Compher said. “I got some good passes from (Soderberg) and (Brassard), and Jost put that first one right under the bar. It felt good to contribute tonight and force Game 7.”
Compher’s evening was a career-high. His offensive output on Monday was the first three-point game of his career, bringing his playoff totals to four goals, two assists and six points in 11 games. He also did something that has not been done in Colorado in nearly 18 years. Compher was the first Avalanche player to record three points in an elimination game since Alex Tanguay in Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Final.
Compher’s path to the NHL went through the College ranks, a more traditional path south of the Canadian border. The native of Northbrook, Illinois, played three seasons for the Wolverines, before signing his entry-level contract with the Avs. Compher was named captain of the Big Ten contender at the beginning of his third and final season in College. He went on to record 16 goals, 47 assists and 63 points in 38 games during his junior year, while playing on line with fellow NHLers Tyler Motte and Kyle Connor.
Prior to joining Michigan, Compher attended the U.S. National Team Development Program for two years, which at the time was located up the road from University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Compher also represented the U.S. in international competition at the 2015 World Juniors and the 2016 and 2017 World Championships.
Heading into a hostile environment at the Sap Center on Wednesday, Compher and the Avalanche will look to defeat the Sharks and appear in the Western Conference Final for the first time in 17 years. But if Colorado expects to make it that far, they will need the top line consisting of Landeskog and fellow All-Stars Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen to have a better game in regulation to support Compher and the depth forwards that led the way on Monday.
“Every time (coach) Bednar put Compher’s line on the ice they kept scoring and every time he put our line on the ice we got scored on,” Landeskog said after scoring his first career playoff overtime goal. “No doubt it’s mostly joy but from an individual perspective I haven’t been as big of an offensive threat as I like to be and would like to contribute more offensively. When you play a lot of minutes you have that responsibility.”
The Avalanche have lost their last three Game 7’s, dating back to the second round of the 2002 playoffs. That year, Colorado needed seven games to advance in each of the first two rounds, before falling to rival Detroit Red Wings 7-0 in the seventh game of the Western Conference Final.
The round before, when Colorado won its last Game 7, they defeated these very same San Jose Sharks. In that series, the Avalanche trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, before coming back to win the next game after a loss all three times. In fact, the Avalanche needed overtime in Game 6 to send the series to a Game 7. The game-winning goal came from Swedish All-Star Peter Forsberg. The Avalanche went on to win Game 7 by a final score of 1-0 behind a 27-save shutout from Hall of Famer Patrick Roy and another game-winner from Forsberg.
Compher, Landeskog and the Avalanche have a chance to repeat history. And if they do, Avs fans will experience a playoff run that was once the norm in Denver.
But in regards to Compher and his promise to be a difference maker someday, none of these scenarios would be possible without his clutch goal-scoring against the Calgary Flames in the first round and more importantly, the best game of his life on Monday.
Colorado and San Jose will drop the puck at 7 pm MST on Wednesday with the winner inching that much closer to the Stanley Cup.