Colorado Avalanche is back atop ice hockey’s mountain after dethroning the two-time defending champions.
Behind a goal and an assist from Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the third time in club history and first in more than two decades by beating Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 of the NHL finals on Sunday night for a winning 4-2 series lead.
It’s the first title for this core group led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar and it follows years of playoff disappointment.
Avalanche lost in the second round in each of the past three seasons after being knocked out in the first round in 2018.
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.
“It feels unbelievable,” MacKinnon said.
“Some tough years mixed in there, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”
Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
As 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, Avalanche tied it when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot.
It went ahead on another goal from Artturi Lehkonen, before locking the game down to see out the victory.
Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, who captained Colorado’s first two title-winning teams in 1996 and 2001, used a familiar recipe to lift his team over the hump.
Much like Pierre Lacroix, the architect of those Avalanche teams that had so much success after the organisation moved to Denver, Sakic prioritised 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.
Lightning staved off elimination once in this series 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.”
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.