The Colorado Avalanche are back atop hockey’s mountain after dethroning the two-time defending champions.
Behind a goal and an assist from Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history – and their first title in more than two decades – by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 of the final on Sunday night.
“It feels like I’m in disbelief,” MacKinnon said after the game. “It’s hard to describe, but to see all of these warriors battle … it just feels unbelievable.”
It’s the first title for this core group led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar and it follows years of playoff disappointment. The Avalanche lost in the second round each of the past three seasons after getting knocked out in the first round in 2018.
With a mix of speed, high-end talent and the experiences gained from those defeats, Colorado broke through this time, earning every bit of the championship by knocking off the team that hoisted the Cup the past two years. Like the Avalanche fully expected, it wasn’t easy.
After an early turnover by Makar leading to Steven Stamkos’ goal that put them in a hole and several more bumps and bruises, the Avalanche tied it when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot and went ahead on another big goal by trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen. They locked things down by holding on to the puck and not letting Tampa Bay even shoot on Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
When they did, he was there. Brought in from Arizona in a trade last summer to shore up the sport’s most important position, Kuemper was solid again and made his most important save with under seven minutes left when he slid over to deny skilled winger Nikita Kucherov.
Makar was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, for the playoffs MVP, after the game.
“Find a Cale Makar somewhere,” Landeskog said when asked what other teams need to win the title. “We’re just a really hard team to play against.”
Much like the Lightning went all in multiple times by trading high draft picks and prospects to load up for the best chance to win the Cup, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic was not afraid to ante up in March to acquire Lehkonen, defenseman Josh Manson and veteran forward Andrew Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado’s core that had showed plenty of playoff promise and until now hadn’t produced a championship.
Sakic, who captained Colorado’s first two title-winning teams in 1996 and 2001, used a familiar recipe to get his team over the hump. Much like Pierre Lacroix, the architect of those Avalanche teams that had so much success after the organization moved to Denver, Sakic prioritized skill, speed and versatility.
That speed overwhelmed every opponent along the way, from an opening sweep of Nashville through a hard-fought, six-game series against St Louis, another sweep of Edmonton and then Tampa Bay, who staved off elimination once but ended up two victories short of becoming the NHL’s first three-peat champions since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.
“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty,” Makar said. “We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.”
That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to steady coach Jared Bednar, who in his sixth season found a way to focus his team 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, American Hockey League’s Calder Cup and 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 began to stack up against the Lightning, who were facing their stiffest competition since their run of success began in 2020.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and limited other key contributors proved too much against a stacked opponent built to withstand just about anything.
The Avalanche beat the Lightning before attrition could take too much of a toll and before the scary possibility of facing elimination in Game 7. Instead, they’ll return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup.
While not as emotional as the past two years when Commissioner Gary Bettman presented the trophy to Stamkos, Colorado’s series-ending victory marks another completion of an NHL season during a pandemic, the first back to 82 games with a normal playoff format since 2019. It was not without its stumbles, including postponing dozens of games and pulling out of the Olympics.
The Avalanche and Lightning dealt with at-times rough ice conditions playing late into June, something that should not happen moving forward as the league gets back to its regular schedule. When that happens, Colorado will get the chance to defend their crown and attempt to follow Tampa Bay in sustaining a perennial Cup contender.