TAMPA, Fla. — Nathan MacKinnon couldn’t find the words. Gabriel Landeskog managed a smile and a joke.
After years of disappointments in the playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche are back at the pinnacle of hockey after dethroning the two-time defending champion.
After a goal and assist from MacKinnon, the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history and for the first time in more than two decades by defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 last Sunday night.
“It just built up over time,” said playoff MVP winner Cale Makar of the Avalanche’s journey. “I’ve only been here for three years. A couple of tough exits in the playoffs. It just all led to it.”
It’s the first title for the Avs’ core group, led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Makar, and it follows several early exits in the postseason – each in the second round of the last three seasons and the first round of 2018 The 2016-17 team was the worst in hockey, ending with just 48 points.
“It’s hard to describe,” said MacKinnon, who took the lead in the clincher by blocking shots and hitting big on top of his offensive performance. “Some tough years got in the way, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”
With a mix of speed, high-end talent, and the experience gleaned from those losses, Colorado broke through this time – and earned every chunk of the championship by beating a strong and brave team that took the trophy to the has hoisted in the last two years.
“Beating them is probably a little more satisfying, to be honest, because they’re champions,” said veteran striker Andrew Cogliano, who lifted the trophy for the first time aged 35. “They know how to win. When you can beat the champions, you know you really deserve it.”
As expected from the Avalanche, it wasn’t easy.
An early turnover from Makar resulted in an easy goal from Steven Stamkos that put Colorado in a hole and several more bumps and bruises followed. The Avalanche equalized as MacKinnon defeated 2021 playoffs MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot and scored another big goal through the acquisition of Trade Dead Artturi Lehkonen. They wrapped things up by holding the puck and held Tampa Bay without a shot at Darcy Kuemper until the middle of the third third.
When the flash finally did, it was there. Kümper, brought in in a trade from Arizona last summer to cement the sport’s most important position, was solid again, making his most important save with less than seven minutes to go when he slipped over to thwart star Nikita Kucherov.
His teammates finished the job, and Colorado improved to 9-1 on the road this postseason.
Much like the Lightning went all-in multiple times, trading high-draft picks and prospects to win the best shot at the cup, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic wasn’t afraid to put in a bet in March to help Lehkonen to take on defensemen Josh Manson and Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado’s core, which had shown a lot of playoff promise but had yet to produce a championship.
Sakic, who managed Colorado’s first two title-winning teams in 1996 and 2001, used a well-known recipe to get his team over the hill. Much like Pierre Lacroix, the architect of the Avalanche teams that have found so much success after the organization moved to Denver, Sakic placed great emphasis on skill, speed and versatility.
That speed overwhelmed every opponent en route to the Finals, from an opening win in Nashville to a hard-fought six-game streak against St. Louis to yet another win in Edmonton. It was a different challenge against Tampa Bay, as the Avalanche had to absorb counterattacks from back-to-back champions to end them.
In the end, Tampa Bay was two wins short of becoming the NHL’s first treble winner since the New York Islanders dynasty in the early 1980s.
“It hurts just like it did the first time,” Stamkos said, referring to the Lightning’s loss to Chicago in the 2015 Finals.
Ahead of the series, Makar said he and his teammates were trying to end a dynasty and start a legacy. That legacy eventually includes a championship, thanks in large part to his stable coach Jared Bednar, who in his sixth season found a way to keep his team focused on the mission ahead from the start of training camp. Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup and the ECHL’s Kelly Cup — all after that abysmal 48-point performance in his first season behind the Colorado bench.
“He complied, too,” Rantanen said. “He had a tough first year in the league and so did I. I can’t believe we’re here six years later.”
Bednar won the chess match with Jon Cooper, also a Stanley and Calder Cup champion who is considered one of the best tacticians in the NHL. The Lightning fell into a 0-2 hole as they faced their toughest competition since their winning streak began in 2020, then went down 3-1 before forcing Game 6.
When asked how other teams might copy the Avalanche’s success, Landeskog quipped, “Get a Cale Makar somewhere.” In fact, Makar won the Conn Smythe after leading Colorado with 29 points in 20 games.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and restricted other key teammates proved too much against a stacked opponent. Depth allowed the Avalanche to overcome lost defender Samuel Girard with a fractured sternum and finish off the Lightning, even with standout forward Andre Burakovsky sidelined with injury Valeri Nichushkin is limping around with an injured right foot and center Nazem Kadri is playing with a broken right thumb.
The Avalanche defeated the Lightning before the attrition could take too great a toll and before the frightening possibility of elimination in Game 7 against Vasilevskiy. Instead, they return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup. A parade is expected on Thursday.
Though not as emotional as the last two years when Stamkos received the trophy, Colorado’s win at the end of the series marks another close to an NHL season during a pandemic — the first back to 82 games with a normal playoff format since 2019. It wasn’t without his stumbles, including the postponement of dozens of games and the withdrawal from the Olympics. Commissioner Gary Bettman couldn’t even present the trophy to Landeskog because he tested positive for the coronavirus and deputy Bill Daly had to do the honour.
The Avalanche and Lightning struggled with occasional rough ice through late June, which shouldn’t happen again when the league returns to its regular schedule. When that happens, Colorado will get a chance to defend its crown and try to follow Tampa Bay and become a perennial cup contender.
Denver-based AP sportswriter Pat Graham contributed to this report.
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