By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press
Tampa, Fla. – The Colorado Avalanche are back on the hockey rink after dethroning the two-time defending champion.
After a goal and assist from Nathan 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’s the first title for this core group, led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar, and follows years of playoff disappointment. The Avalanche has lost in the second round for the past three seasons after being eliminated in the first round in 2018.
“It feels incredible,” MacKinnon said. “Some tough years got in the way, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”
A parade celebrating the Avalanche victory will be held in downtown Denver on Thursday.
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 the team that had clinched the trophy for the past two years has hoisted. As expected from the Avalanche, it wasn’t easy.
After an early turnover from Makar that led to Steven Stamkos’ goal that put them in a hole and several more bumps and bruises, the Avalanche equalized when MacKinnon took down 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot defeated Artturi Lehkonen and took the lead with another big goal at the close of trade. They wrapped things up by holding the puck and not even letting Tampa Bay shoot the puck at Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
When they did, he was there. Kümper, brought on in a move 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 talented winger Nikita Kucherov.
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 make an effort in March, to bring in Lehkonen, defenseman Josh Manson and a veteran forward Andrew Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado’s core, which had shown a lot of playoff promise and 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 along the way, from a first win in Nashville, through a hard-fought six-game streak against St. Louis, another win in Edmonton and then Tampa Bay, preventing elimination once but ending with two Siege fell short of becoming the NHL’s first three-peat champion since the New York Islanders dynasty in the early 1980s.
“They are a team that wants to become a dynasty,” Makar said. “We are a team that wants to take on 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 at hand from the start of training camp. That mentality helped the Avalanche get over the hump, and Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup, and the ECHL’s Kelly Cup.
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. But things started to pile up against the Lightning, who faced their toughest competition since their winning streak began in 2020.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and restricted other key teammates proved too much against a stacked opponent who could endure just about anything. The depth allowed the Avalanche to overcome lost defender Samuel Girard with a fractured sternum and end the blitz without overtime in Cup Final Game 1 Andre Burakovsky, who was injured, and with standout winger Valeri Nichushkin, who was on an injured right Foot hobbled, and center Nazem, who played through a broken right thumb.
The Avalanche defeated the Lightning before the attrition could take too great a toll and before the frightening possibility of Game 7 elimination loomed. Instead, they return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup.
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 its pitfalls, including the postponement of dozens of games and being eliminated from the Olympics – and commissioner Gary Bettman couldn’t even present Landeskog the trophy because he tested positive for the coronavirus and honors deputy Bill Daly had to.
The Avalanche and Blitz struggled with intermittently rough ice conditions playing through late June, which shouldn’t happen when the league returns to its regular schedule. If that happens, Colorado will get a chance to defend its crown and look to follow Tampa Bay in support of a perennial cup contender.