TAMPA, Fla. – The NHL’s worst team only five years ago, the Avalanche completed its journey to the top of the hockey world Sunday night, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 21 years.
The Avalanche, which won the series in six games and dethroned the two-time defending champion Lightning, completed a tour de force postseason. It never trailed in any of its four series, never dropped consecutive games and went 16-4.
And the clinching win was its 10th come-from-behind victory, tying a league record. The Avs received second-period goals from center Nathan MacKinnon and winger Artturi Lehkonen.
“Disbelief,” MacKinnon said. “It’s crazy. I can’t wait to hug my family. It’s hard to describe. I didn’t really know what it was going to be like to actually win it. Just seeing all these warriors battle. It just feels unbelievable. Words can’t describe how I feel right now.”
Defenseman Cale Makar was named Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff’s most valuable player.
Avs captain Gabe Landeskog received the Stanley Cup and handed it to defenseman Erik Johnson, the longest-tenured Avs player, who then gave it to winger Andrew Cogliano, followed by MacKinnon, defenseman Jack Johnson, center Nazem Kadri, injured winger Andre Burakovsky and winger Mikko Rantanen.
“That’s 20-plus years of just dreaming, wanting, and working for it,” Landeskog said. “It’s finally coming to fruition after a lot of crazy years and then a lot of hard work. But this group is just amazing.”
The third period was 20 minutes of high drama … most of it produced by the Avalanche. As the Avs created chance after chance, Tampa Bay had no shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the period and only two through 16 minutes.
The Lightning’s first premium third-period chance came with 6:32 left when Darcy Kuemper slid laterally to stop a shot by Nikita Kucherov.
Tampa Bay pulled its goalie with two minutes remaining. Landeskog blocked a shot and literally crawled off the ice ahead of a stoppage with 1:15 left. Kuemper made a save through traffic with 1:10 left. MacKinnon cleared the puck down the ice with 25 seconds.
And at 10:48 p.m. local time, the Avs were champions.
“I just had a feeling we were going to get the job done,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said.
The mob scene behind the Colorado goal included every player who threw each of their sticks, gloves and helmets into the air.
Unable to get over the second-round hump the previous three postseasons, the Avalanche of MacKinnon and Landeskog, Makar and Rantanen, Kadri and winger Valeri Nichushkin joined franchise icons such as Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote as champions.
June 26, 2022 joined June 10, 1996 and June 9, 2001 as Avalanche championship-winning dates. The Avs became only the fourth Cup champion since 1968 to win all four of their series on road ice; they were 9-1 in away games during their two-month skate to glory.
After wins over Florida (’96) and New Jersey (’01), Sakic received the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman. All these years later, Sakic-the-general-manager was the architect of this team. He hired Bednar as head coach out of the American Hockey League. He drafted Makar. He signed low-frills/high-impact free agents like Nichushkin. And he traded for Kadri, Lehkonen and defenseman Devon Toews, among others.
Former No. 1 draft pick Erik Johnson saw it all.
“I came to Denver 12 years ago,” Johnson said. “We were dead last in the league. We became dead last again four years later. Five years ago, dead last. It’s just about believing in yourself and surrounding yourself with people that believe in you. Special things can happen.”
The win completed a masterpiece of a postseason for the Avalanche. Since the NHL introduced all best-of-seven rounds 35 years ago, the Avs’ 16-4 record was tied for the second-best behind only the 1988 Edmonton Oilers, who went 16-2 and had the game’s greatest all-time player in Wayne Gretzky.
This Avalanche team overwhelmed teams with equal parts star power and grittiness. It had superstars in MacKinnon and Makar. It had leadership in Landeskog and Erik Johnson. It had back-of-the-lineup role players in Cogliano and center Darren Helm. And it had just enough goaltending, led by Kuemper.
The Avs needed all 18 skaters and Kuemper in Game 6 to outlast the Lightning, which scored first for the third time in four games.
Makar was involved in Tampa Bay’s opening goal. He coughed it up near the goal-line and the puck deflected off the skate of Lightning winger Ondrej Palat and right to center Steven Stamkos, who scored five-hole against Kuemper.
Just 1:54 into the second, the Avalanche tied it on MacKinnon’s 13th goal of the playoffs.
Skating 6-on-5 because of a delayed Lightning penalty, Landeskog passed center point to defenseman Bo Byram, who fed it to MacKinnon for the one-timer from the circle that beat goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to the blocker side.
The Avalanche fore-check got cooking throughout the second period, but the score remained tied until the 12:38 mark. MacKinnon skated up the middle and his pass attempt to defenseman Josh Manson on his right went off defenseman Erik Cernak and bounded left to Lehkonen, whose quick snap shot beat Vasilevskiy to the high glove side.
The Avalanche’s climb to the top of the NHL was literally terrible-to-terrific. In the 2016-17 season, Bednar was a rookie coach and his roster was young and not yet ready to win. The Avs won only 22 of 82 games and suffered six losing streaks of at least five games. Sakic, though, did not panic, choosing to stick with Bednar in the view the coach would grow along with his roster. Sakic was right.
“Yeah, we had the worst record (five years ago), but we had some really good young players that were just about to become stars. A great core. You just build around them,” Sakic said in a television interview postgame. “… They wanted to be a part of it. Like (Nathan) MacKinnon, (Gabe) Landeskog, Erik Johnson, they didn’t want to leave, they wanted to be a part of that.”
In reality, the Avalanche’s journey to planning a victory parade started in the bowels of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on June 10, 2021. The Avs had blown a 2-0 lead, losing four consecutive games to a Vegas Golden Knights team that wasn’t more talented, but more resilient and resourceful and could get up after taking a punch and also deliver a haymaker.
Much like the Broncos’ first championship team, which was upset by Jacksonville only to win the next two Super Bowls, the Avalanche learned from having its heart broken.
The Avs and Broncos have three championships apiece. Since the 1995-96 season, Denver’s six “Big Four” championships — NFL, NHL, NBA and MLB — are sixth-most, behind Boston and Los Angeles (12 apiece), Chicago (eight) and New York and the Bay Area (seven apiece).
The Broncos’ championship faces were veteran quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning, players in their late 30s who dashed into the playing sunset after winning the title in 1998 and 2015, respectively. It took years for the Broncos to recover post-Elway and the post-Manning teams haven’t been back to the playoffs.
Contrast that to the Avalanche, which may only be getting started. Its best player, Makar, is 23. Its most dynamic goal-scorer, MacKinnon, is 26. Its guts-and-guile winger, Rantanen, is 25. And its heartbeat and soul, Landeskog, is 29. This team could match the recent runs of dominance by Chicago, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, whose core of players won multiple championships.
The Avs are champions. Believe it. Enjoy it. Savor it.
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