Avalanche climb Stanley Cup summit, capping dominant run

TAMPA, Fla. — Before the Colorado Avalanche kissed Lord Stanley’s newly dented cup, before the champagne soaked their shirts, the disparate leadership groups of these two titans had a quiet elevator ride from the press box to the ice in the Amalie Arena heavyweight slugfest.

There were no hoots and yells, no backslaps, no hugs for Avalanche GM Joe Sakic and his team – definitely not in front of the competition, it’s not in Sakic’s humble nature.

As the doors closed, Lightning GM Julien BriseBois turned to Sakic and said, “You’ve set the standard now.” Sakic thanked him and replied without blinking, “You showed us the way.”

It was a torch passing ceremony just minutes before the Stanley Cup was officially handed over to a new and worthy champion for the first time in three years. The Colorado Avalanche has topped the Stanley Cup for the first time since 2001 in one of the most dominating performances the hockey world has ever seen.

The Avs went through the playoffs with a 16-4 record. Since 1987, when all four rounds were best-of-sevens, only one team has won the trophy with fewer than four losses: the 1988 Edmonton Oilers. That’s the kind of society Colorado has maintained.

In a sport so random and unpredictable, it’s so rare that a team lives up to the preseason hype and leads the table like the 2021-22 Avalanche did. And to achieve that, they defeated two-time defending champion Lightning in clinical fashion with a 2-1 victory in Game 6 on Sunday night.

“It feels like disbelief,” said Nathan MacKinnon.

“It feels incredible,” said Nazem Kadri. “There are no words to describe it.”

In a way, the way the Avs mowed through the gassed bolts mirrored their regular season. Whenever they were interrogated, whenever it mattered, the Avalanche lowered their heads and moved on.

Strong preseason favorites stumbled out of the gate in October with a 4-5-1 record. There have been rumors about the job security of manager Jared Bednar, who was operating in the final year of his contract. Sakic quickly crushed them and signed Bednar on a two-year extension in November. And after that, the Avalanche — playing the rest of the way 68-18-6 — won an incredible three of their next four games, up to and including Sunday’s clincher.

They had a .740 profit percentage (not percentage points!) after this slow start. In the end, the Avalanche recorded 72 wins, the most between the regular season and the playoffs with the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, 1983-84 Edmonton Oilers and 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings. Of course, none of those three teams had the shootout advantage, but that doesn’t detract from Colorado’s performance.

“They stuck together,” Sakic said. “They didn’t let anything get in their way. And there were stretches where they could let things bother them, and every day they just got up. Something would happen and they put it behind them.

“The entire playoffs, if we didn’t have a great game, they forgot. They didn’t respond. They believed in each other so much and now they are being rewarded. They are Stanley Cup champions and they will be championships forever and together.”

The Avalanche has never been trailed in a playoff series. For a team that didn’t have a healthy lineup by Game 1 of the playoffs, the only adversity they really faced was the ghosts of the playoff past.

Perhaps Gabriel Landeskog simplified it a bit when he said after the game that the secret to success was “to get a bunch of Cales,” as in Cale Makar, the first unanimous Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP since the Professional Hockey Writers Association began publishing league tables five seasons ago.

Sakic has put together the perfect combination of core players who made it to the other side after a goddamn rebuild in 2016-17, a collection of young talent and the right complementing pieces from Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Josh Manson and Niko Sturm. Lehkonen scored the goal to win the cup in the second period.

In the salary cap era, there may never be another team like the Avalanche, one that took full advantage of star players like MacKinnon in their heyday with bargain deals, leaving plenty of room for others. MacKinnon would probably trade the dollars for a ring any day.

“I am forever grateful to get through this with these warriors. The guys we got on deadline. The young people we brought with us. It was a perfect blend,” said MacKinnon.

There were a few memorable moments along the way, from Kadri’s stunning overtime victory in Game 4 that put Colorado on a collision course with the trophy, to MacKinnon’s heroic hat-trick in Game 5 of the second round against St. Louis. Oh, yes, and there was MacKinnon shoveling a limping Landeskog onto the bench in the clincher’s dwindling seconds, picture perfect for a team of speed and skill who were also more than willing to pay the price for victory.

“That’s the kind of team we had,” Sakic said. “They have stood up for each other all year. They had each other’s backs.”

They also made use of their goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper, who made a couple of saves in the third period to calm nerves and retain the win. Kuemper started the night with a savings rate of 0.899, which increased to 0.902 by the end of the night, but still the worst mark of any cup winner in 45 years.

If that doesn’t tell the tale of Avs dominance, the team that averaged nearly four and a half goals a game in the playoffs, then their opponent’s facial expressions did. The Lightning had previously been to the top of the mountain twice, had won 11 straight series and refused to go quietly into the Stanley Cup Finals.

They were dethroned – by the new standard. Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke said players ran up to him and said, “This is amazing, let’s do it again.” The Avs will have all the ammunition to try and start their own dynasty now that they have their own have created a legacy.

“That’s what we’re trying to be,” Sakic said of Lightning. “You know, everyone wants to be the champion. To have the opportunity to face them in the finals and beat the champions is even more special for this group in my opinion.”

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