TAMPA, Fla. — Nathan MacKinnon could not find the words. Gabriel Landeskog cracked a smile and a joke.
After years of playoff disappointment, the Avalanche are back atop hockey’s mountain, having dethroned the two-time defending champion Lightning.
Behind a goal and an assist from MacKinnon, Colorado won the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history and the first time in more than two decades by beating Tampa Bay, 2-1, in Game 6 on Sunday night.
“It was all leading up to this,” defenseman Cale Makar said about the Avalanche’s journey. Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“It’s surreal to me,” he said. “You grow up, you see that as a kid, you have pictures on your wall. All I could think about was everybody that got me here.”
It’s the first title for this core group led by MacKinnon, Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Makar. It followed postseason exits in the second round each of the previous three seasons and the first round in 2018.
“That’s 20-plus years of just dreaming and wanting and working for it and just finally coming to fruition after a lot of crazy years and a lot of hard work,” Landeskog said. “This group is just amazing, all the way from the top to our third massage therapist to the wives to the fans to everybody working in Ball [Arena] right now. It’s incredible.’’
“It feels unbelievable,” MacKinnon said. “Some tough years mixed in there, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”
After an early turnover by Makar that led to Steven Stamkos’ goal, the Avalanche tied it when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot at 1:54 of the second period. Colorado went ahead on another big goal by trade-deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen at 12:28 of the second and locked things down by holding on to the puck and limiting Tampa Bay’s opportunities against goalie Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
Brought in from Arizona in a trade last summer, Kuemper made his most important save with less than seven minutes left when he slid over to deny Nikita Kucherov.
Much as 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 forward Andrew Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado’s core.
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 six-game series against St. Louis and a sweep of Edmonton. Tampa Bay staved off elimination in Game 5 but ended up two victories short of becoming the NHL’s first three-peat champions since the early 1980s Islanders dynasty.
“It definitely stings,’’ defenseman Ryan MacDonagh said.
“We just ran out of gas,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And it sucks.’’
“It’s been unbelievable,” Stamkos said. “Who says we’re done? The core has been to four finals in the last eight years and won two championships.”
“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty,” Makar said of the Lightning. “We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.”
That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to 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. He became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, American Hockey League’s Calder Cup and ECHL’s Kelly Cup.
Makar, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman during the regular season, led Colorado in postseason scoring with 29 points in 20 games.
Asked how other teams might be able to copy Colorado’s success, Landeskog quipped, “Get a Cale Makar somewhere.”
“We’ve seen him play this way from Day 1 of the season,” Bednar said of Makar. “This guy is elite, and with him, the job he does for us offensively and defensively, watching him play, how dynamic he is, he’s just the best defenseman in the game right now.”
“I don’t think anything goes to his head,” Sakic said. “Cale is a hard-working, humble guy. He does not pay attention to any outside noise. He deserves everything he’s getting. Such an unbelievable hockey player, and he plays both ways.”