DENVER — With his right hand, Matt Duchene lifted the Olympic medal for a photo opportunity to highlight any scrapbook.
"A dream come true," the proud Canadian forward said Tuesday, a gleam in his eye and a gold around his neck.
Here's what I wanted to know: For guys who have been skating since they were 4 years old, which is a bigger deal to the players inside an NHL locker room?
"The Stanley Cup is No. 1," Duchene told me. "The gold medal is No. 2."
After a pause, he said, "It's nice to cross No. 2 off my list. Now it's time to get No. 1."
That's the crux of the matter, isn't it? When the Avalanche returns from the Olympics break to host the Kings at Pepsi Center on Wednesday, it marks a surprising turn of events. Hey, guess what: the Avs own the sixth-most points (79) in the NHL.
With 24 games remaining, the Avs are smack in the middle of the chase for the silver Stanley Cup. Too soon, you say? In the watered-down Eastern Conference, Colorado would have the second-most points.
"Am I surprised at how many points we have at this time? Probably. I would be lying if I said I wasn't surprised," club executive Joe Sakic said. "But we were expecting to be a lot better. We were expecting to be a playoff team."
The sample size is big enough now. It's OK to expect more.
Just as Duchene said it's time to move on from the Olympics, it's time to rearrange expectations for the Avalanche. Colorado's championship chase didn't end when the Broncos did their best impression of a ketchup packet — splat — in the Super Bowl.
The Avs are operating as though simply making the playoffs wouldn't be cool.
"I think we're ready, yes," Ryan O'Reilly said. "I think we can. You're not playing this game just to get into the playoffs. You're in it to win a Stanley Cup."
Here in the heart of Winter Olympics country, the Sochi Games still seemed like what they were: thousands of miles away. The Avs sent four players; Duchene returned with a gold from Team Canada, Gabriel Landeskog a silver with Sweden.
But building momentum into the Stanley Cup playoffs would hit home. In the 13 years since Alex Tanguay scored the game-winning goal that brought the Stanley Cup to Colorado, the state has waited patiently for the next parade down Broadway. Conventional wisdom suggests Peyton Manning's Broncos are the Colorado team best positioned to party like it was 2001. But it's worth repeating Patrick Roy's memorable quote from the May press conference in which he was introduced as coach:
"Why not us?"
"I feel that everybody is feeling really good (after the break)," Roy said Tuesday.
The Stanley Cup title is won in the same way an Olympic goal medal is won, through star power and memorable goaltending. The Avs have enjoyed both.
Since Jan. 1, only two players in the NHL are responsible for more points than Avs rookie Nathan MacKinnon, who has 20. The Kid is growing up.
Since Jan. 1, no goalie has more wins than Colorado's Semyon Varlamov, who has 11.
The Russian won't encounter more pressure back in the NHL than he did in Sochi, only an adjustment to oxygen levels.
"The altitude is killing me," Varlamov said.
Coming off a last-place finish to the 2013 season, the Avs were an icy afterthought.
Coming off the Olympics break, the Avs should be thought of as a contender in the Western Conference. They are closer to the No. 1 seed (eight points) than the team behind them (10 points). They own a winning record against three of the four teams ahead of them in the West. Only St. Louis (0-2) remains a big, bad matchup.
Milan Hejduk helped the Avs to the 2001 Stanley Cup title. At a press conference to announce his retirement, the winger reflected on how the game has changed.
"Hockey, from where it was 10 years ago, it's way better. It's younger. It's faster. There's more action, I think," Hejduk said. "It's just more fun to watch. The game is definitely way more faster than it used to be. I think it's way more difficult for older guys to keep up with the younger players these days."
The four Avs who competed in Sochi have an average age of 24. The extended travel schedule of an Olympic year doesn't figure to mess with their fresh legs.
"It's a long year for the guys who played in the Olympics," O'Reilly told me. "You never know when you get into the playoffs, if you get a team that had a ton of guys in the Olympics, it's going to be tough for them."
The revival of the Avs is all quite unexpected, quite therapeutic for Colorado sports fans who figured their championship hopes were tackled on Super Bowl Sunday.
But the championship chase is alive and well, thank you. Only now it's on ice.
"I think I can bring that (Olympic) experience here to Colorado. That's the thing I'm most excited about," Duchene said. "That makes me even more hungry to win a Stanley Cup now."
What's better than gold? For the Avs, silver.