TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon could not find the words. Gabriel Landeskog cracked a smile and a joke.
After years of playoff disappointments, the Colorado Avalanche are back atop hockey’s mountain after dethroning the two-time defending champions.
Behind a goal and an assist from 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 of the final Sunday night.
“It was all leading up to this,” playoff MVP-winning defensman Cale Makar said about the Avalanche's journey.
It’s the first title for this core group led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Makar and it follows several early postseason exits — in the second round each of the past three seasons and the first in 2018.
“It feels unbelievable,” MacKinnon said. “Some tough years mixed in there, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”
With a mix of speed, high-end talent and the experiences gained from those defeats, Colorado broke through this time — earning every bit of the championship by knocking off the team that hoisted the Cup the past two years. Like the Avalanche fully expected, it wasn’t easy.
After an early turnover by Makar leading to Steven Stamkos' goal that put them in a hole and several more bumps and bruises, the Avalanche tied it when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot and went ahead on another big goal by trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen. They locked things down by holding on to the puck and not letting Tampa Bay even shoot the puck on Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
When they did, he was there. Brought in from Arizona in a trade last summer to shore up the sport's most important position, Kuemper was solid again and made his most important save with under seven minutes left when he slid over to deny skilled winger Nikita Kucherov.
His teammates finished the job.
“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.
Much like 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 veteran forward Andrew Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado’s core that had showed plenty of playoff promise and until now hadn’t produced a championship.
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 hard-fought, six-game series against St. Louis, another sweep of Edmonton and then Tampa Bay, which staved off elimination once but ended up two victories short of becoming the NHL’s first three-peat champions since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.
“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty,” Makar said. “We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.”
That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to steady 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. That mentality helped the Avalanche get over the hump, and Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, American Hockey League's Calder Cup and ECHL's Kelly Cup.
Bednar won the chess match with Jon Cooper, also a Stanley and Calder Cup champion who is considered one of the best tacticians in the NHL. But things began to stack up against the Lightning facing their stiffest competition since their run of success began in 2020.
Asked how other teams might be able to copy the Avalanche's success, Landeskog quipped, “Get a Cale Makar somewhere.”
Makar won the Conn Smythe after leading Colorado in scoring with 29 points in 20 games.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and limited other key contributors proved too much against a stacked opponent built to withstand just about anything. Depth allowed the Avalanche to overcome losing defenseman Samuel Girard to a broken sternum and finish off the Lightning without Cup Final Game 1 overtime Andre Burakovsky sidelined by injury and with standout winger Valeri Nichushkin hobbling around on an injured right foot and center Nazem playing through a broken right thumb.
The Avalanche beat the Lightning before attrition could take too much of a toll and before the scary possibility of facing elimination in Game 7. Instead, they'll return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup.
While not as emotional as the past two years when Stamkos got the trophy, Colorado's series-ending victory marks another completion of an NHL season during a pandemic — the first back to 82 games with a normal playoff format since 2019. It was not without its stumbles, including postponing dozens of games and pulling out of the Olympics — and Commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't even able to hand the Cup to Landeskog because he tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving deputy Bill Daly to do the honors.
The Avalanche and Lightning dealt with at-times rough ice conditions playing late into June, something that should not happen moving forward as the league gets back to its regular schedule. When that happens, Colorado will get the chance to defend its crown and attempt to follow Tampa Bay in sustaining a perennial Cup contender.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.
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Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press