TAMPA, Fla. – Ten teams in the past three years have tried to take out the Tampa Bay Lightning in the postseason while pursuing a dynasty. They tried in the bubble of 2020, they tried in Canada, in the state of Florida and the islands of New York, but they all failed.
Since 2019, no one had found a way to beat a team on its way to the top until Sunday, when the Colorado Avalanche discovered the right combination of skill, speed and determination needed to knock out the champion. .
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the NHL has a new champion. The high-flying Avalanche defeated the brave Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 of the Finals to capture the Stanley Cup, one of the sport’s most elusive and enduring trophies.
“I grew up with a picture on my wall of a Stanley Cup team, the 2001 Colorado Avalanche,” said Colorado captain Gabriel Landesog. “My dream was to one day be in that photo with this shirt on. We did it.”
One by one during the post-game celebration, the Avalanche players, led by Landeskog, lifted and kissed the shiny cup as they paraded it across the ice of the Amalie Arena, just as the Lightning had done on the same ice, their home job, the year before.
It is the third title for the Colorado franchise and the first since the 2001 team that Landeskog so admired, with Joe Sakic as the team captain. Sakic, who also spent seven seasons with the organization before moving from Quebec, was once again on hand to take part in the final celebration, this time as the general manager and architect of a club so strong in talent it meant Tampa Bay. finally met his match.
“It’s so special when you can win the Stanley Cup,” Sakic said. “The only difference is that it’s much more stressful when you have to watch instead of play. I’m just so proud of what these players have achieved.”
One such great player was Cale Makar, the dazzling 23-year-old defender, who was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the playoffs for his eight goals and 29 points.
When asked in a televised interview what other teams could learn from the Avalanche, Landeskog said, “Go out and find a Cale Makar somewhere.”
But other great players such as Landeskog, center Nathan MacKinnon, wing Mikko Rantanen, gritty forward Nazem Kadri and even the sometimes-maligned goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper all played a part in wresting the Stanley Cup from Tampa Bay’s stubborn grasp.
As they entered the series, the Avalanche reveled in the opportunity to showcase their own abilities against the best in the league.
“You want to beat the best,” Sakic said. “We hope we can start something like Tampa did. Three Stanley Cup finals in a row, what an organization. That’s what we want to be, trying to keep it like they did.”
But Lightning wanted more. They wanted to become the first team to win three Stanley Cups in a row since the Islanders won four consecutive titles from 1980 to 1983.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” said Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos. “Sometimes you have to take a step back and realize it’s a great team there. Congratulations to them. But it’s tough.”
Stamkos, who scored the first goal of the game, is the leader of a core of Lightning players, including the magnificent goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy and star skaters such as defender Victor Hedman, winger Nikita Kucherov and defender Mikhail Sergachev, most of whom played in their 68th high-intensity game in a post-season series starting with the 2020 playoffs, which were played in so-called bubbles in Canada due to the pandemic.
The Lightning had won 11 playoff series in a row, but in doing so, they had played more games than any other team in the past three years, knocking out in four games in that span. After all the mental and physical stomping, they finally gave way to a new champion.
“We just ran out of gas,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper.
Never was that more evident than in Sunday’s third period, when the younger, fresher Avalanche held the puck at the Lightning end and allowed just four shots at the net, providing more evidence that it was time to find a new champion. crowns.
Of course, there was the mandatory scramble in the closing minutes after Tampa Bay pulled Vasilevskiy for an extra skater. Landeskog blocked a shot with a skate and the blade flew off, rendering him unable to skate. As he crawled on all fours to get to the bench, MacKinnon grabbed him by the jersey to help him, leaving two players unwell.
“I panicked because I saw them coming down and Nate pushed me,” Landesog said. “I didn’t want to be on the ice in the middle of our zone when they were going to score. I didn’t know how to do it. I have never done that.”
Landeskog, one of the longest-serving members of the team along with defender Erik Johnson, praised Sakic, who has proven to be almost as adept at creating a winner from the front office as he was with skates on his feet and a stick in his hand. hand. As general manager, Sakic is responsible for building a team that has been widely recognized for several years as one of the emerging powerhouses in the league. But that only came after Colorado missed the playoffs six times in seven years, from 2011 to 2017.
Those were grim years for NHL hockey in Denver, but Sakic, who has been general manager since 2013, added talented players every year, many coming in via high-draft picks, thanks to all those losing seasons. Landeskog got second overall pick in 2011. MacKinnon got first pick two years later and Colorado selected Rantanen with 10th pick in 2015. In 2017 they had the good sense to take Makar at number 4, and two years after they added defender Bowen Byram, also with a number 4 pick.
With those homegrown players, plus key additions over the years such as Kadri defender Devon Toews and wing Andre Burakovsky through trades, and wing Valeri Nichushkin through free agency, Colorado climbed into the fray. Last year, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the best record in the regular season. But so far, the group has been unable to turn regular season success into playoff glory, falling in the second round in each of the previous three years.
This season, with Makar breaking out to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender and 31-year-old Kadri building a career high with 87 points, the Avalanche set franchise records for wins (56) and points (119) and the Most importantly, carried that dominance to the playoffs with a 16-4 record.
As of training camp, the question for the Avalanche was the team’s ability to overcome previous failures and ultimately win a title. That was tested in the final, when they lost Game 5 at home and faced the prospect of becoming just the second team of 37 to lose the final after taking a 3-1 lead.
But in Game 6, the Avalanche himself showed a determination for the championship.
The Lightning held onto their 1-0 lead until MacKinnon tied the score on a single shot to the right of Vasilevskiy just 1 minute 54 seconds into the second period, suppressing the crowd’s cheers.
Minutes later, Artturi Lehkonen scored, who joined the Avalanche in a trade Sakic made with Montreal in March to give Colorado the first lead of the game, bringing the team closer to its first Stanley Cup celebration since Sakic held up the trophy. as a player. , 21 years ago.
This time it went to Landeskog first and then he passed it on to Johnson, who has been with Colorado since a mid-season in 2010-11. That included the painful 2016-17 season, when the Avs finished with the worst record in the league. But even then, Johnson never had any doubts that he and Landeskog would someday win one of the greatest trophies in the sport.
“It’s tougher than you think,” Johnson said. “It’s great. Gabe has been telling me for the past few years, ‘You get it first.’ It’s just a super, satisfying feeling.”