By STEPHEN WHYNO
TAMPA, Fla. – The Colorado Avalanche is back on mountain hockey after dethroning the two defending champions.
After a goal and an assist from Nathan MacKinnon, the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history and first in more than two decades by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 last Sunday night.
It is the first title for this central group led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar and follows years of disappointment in the playoffs. The Avalanche lost in the second round each of the last three seasons after being eliminated in the first round in 2018.
With a mix of speed, high-end talent and the experiences gained with those defeats, Colorado broke this time, winning every part of the championship by defeating the team that lifted the Cup in the past two years. As the Avalanche fully expected, it was not easy.
After an early loss of Makar’s ball that led to Steven Stamkos’ goal that put him in a hole and several more blows and bruises, the Avalanche tied when MacKinnon beat the 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with an almost perfect shot and took the lead in another great goal. by acquisition of commercial term Artturi Lehkonen. They blocked things by grabbing the record and not letting Tampa Bay even shoot the record to Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
When they did, he was there. Brought from Arizona in an exchange last summer to bolster the sport’s most important position, Kuemper once again became solid and made his most important save with less than seven minutes left when he slipped to deny skilled winger Nikita Kucherov.
Like the Lightning has been all about several times exchanging draft picks and high prospects to look for the best chance of winning the Cup, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic was not afraid to bet in March to acquire Lehkonen, defender Josh Manson and the veteran. striker Andrew Cogliano. They have become the perfect addition to the Colorado core that has shown many promise of the playoffs and so far has not produced a championship.
Sakic, who captained the first two Colorado title-winning teams in 1996 and 2001, used a family recipe to get his team out of the hump. Like Pierre Lacroix, the architect of those Avalanche teams that were so successful after the organization moved to Denver, Sakic prioritized skill, speed, and versatility.
That speed surpassed every opponent on the road, from a first sweep of Nashville to a hard-fought six-game series against St. Louis. Louis, another sweep of Edmonton and then Tampa Bay, who avoided elimination once but ended up with two wins less. of becoming the first NHL three-man champions since the early 1980s of the New York Islanders dynasty.
“They’re a team looking to become a dynasty,” Makar said. “We are a team looking to start a legacy.”
That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to constant coach Jared Bednar, who in his sixth season has found a way to focus his team on the mission it deserves from the start of the training camp. That mindset helped the Avalanche overcome the hump, and Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, the American Hockey League Calder Cup and the ECHL Kelly Cup.
Bednar won the chess game with Jon Cooper, also Stanley Cup champion and Calder who is considered one of the best tactics in the NHL. But things have started to face the Lightning in the face of its toughest competition since it began its successful career in 2020.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and limited to other key contributors proved to be too much against a stacked rival built to withstand almost anything. The depth allowed the Avalanche to beat losing defender Samuel Girard with a sternum rupture and finish the Lightning without overtime in the 1.º Cup final match Andre Burakovsky came out injured and with outstanding winger Valeri Nichushkin limping with an injured right foot and the center of Nazem playing in a break. right thumb.
The Avalanche beat the Lightning before the wear could charge too much and at the appalling possibility of facing elimination in Game 7. Instead, they will return to Denver to celebrate the Stanley Cup.
While not as emotional as the last two years, when commissioner Gary Bettman handed the trophy to Stamkos, Colorado’s victory that ended the series marks another conclusion to an NHL season during a pandemic: the first back to 82 games with a normal playoff format since 2019. has not been free of stumbling blocks, including postponing dozens of games and withdrawing from the Olympics.
The Avalanche and Lightning sometimes dealt with harsh ice conditions playing in late June, something that shouldn’t happen going forward when the league returns to its usual schedule. When that happens, Colorado will have a chance to defend their crown and try to follow Tampa Bay to keep a perennial Cup contender.
AP Sports writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.
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