TAMPA, Florida — The Colorado Avalanche are back on top of the hockey 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 the first in more than two decades by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in the sixth. final match on Sunday evening.
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 have lost in the second round each of the past three seasons after being knocked out in the first round in 2018.
“It’s amazing,” MacKinnon said. “Some tough years got mixed in there, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing in it.
With a mix of speed, top-notch talent and experiences gained from those losses, Colorado broke through this time around – winning every bit of the championship by knocking out the team that hoisted the Cup the past two. years. Like the long-awaited Avalanche, it wasn’t easy.
After an early Makar turnover leading to Steven Stamkos’ goal that put them in a hole and several other bumps and bruises, the Avalanche tied the game when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot and is went ahead on another big goal by acquiring time trader Artturi Lehkonen. They locked things down by hanging on to the puck and not even letting Tampa Bay get the puck to Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
When they did, he was there. Brought in from Arizona in a trade last summer to cement the sport’s most important position, Kuemper was solid again and made his most important save with less than seven minutes left when he slipped to deny skilled winger Nikita Kucherov.
Just as the Lightning repeatedly went all-in trading high draft picks and prospects to take on the best chance of winning the Cup, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic wasn’t afraid to bet in March to acquire Lehkonen, defenseman Josh Manson and the veteran. forward Andrew Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to the core Colorado which had shown a lot of promise in the playoffs and so far hadn’t produced a championship.
Sakic, who captained the first two Colorado teams to win the title 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 enjoyed so much success after the organization’s move to Denver, Sakic prioritized skill, speed and versatility.
That speed overwhelmed every opponent along the way, from an early sweep of Nashville to a hard-fought six-game series against St. Louis, another sweep of Edmonton and then Tampa Bay, which avoided elimination once. times but ended in two narrow wins. to become the first three-time NHL champion since the New York Islanders dynasty in the early 1980s.
“This is a team looking to become a dynasty,” Makar said. “We are a team looking to create a legacy.”
That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to regular coach Jared Bednar, who, in his sixth season, found a way to focus his team on the mission at hand right from the start of training camp. This mentality helped the Avalanche take the leap and Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, the Calder Cup of the American Hockey League and the Kelly Cup of the ECHL.
Bednar won the chess match with Jon Cooper, also a Stanley Cup and Calder champion and considered one of the best tacticians in the NHL. But things started to pile up against the Lightning facing their toughest competition since beginning their streak of success in 2020.
The injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and limited other key contributors proved too much against a stacked opponent designed to withstand almost anything. The depth allowed the Avalanche to defeat losing defenseman Samuel Girard to a broken sternum and finish the Lightning without overtime in Game 1 of the Cup Final Andre Burakovsky sidelined by injury and with standout winger Valeri Nichushkin limping on an injured right foot and center Nazem playing through a broken right thumb.
The Avalanche beat the Lightning before attrition did too much damage and before the frightening possibility of facing elimination in Game 7. Instead, they will return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup.
While not as emotional as the past two years when Stamkos won the trophy, Colorado’s series-ending victory marks another NHL season completion during a pandemic — the first comeback to 82 games. with a normal playoff format since 2019. It was not without his stumbles, including postponing dozens of games and withdrawing from the Olympics – and commissioner Gary Bettman couldn’t even hand the Cup to Landeskog because he tested positive for coronavirus, leaving MP Bill Daly to do the honors.
The Avalanche and Lightning struggled with sometimes difficult ice conditions through June, which is unlikely to happen in the future as the league returns to its regular schedule. When that happens, Colorado will have a chance to defend their crown and try to follow Tampa Bay in supporting a perennial Cup contender.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.
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