TAMPA, Fla. – Ten teams over the last three years have tried to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning in the postseason as they pursued a dynasty. They tried in the 2020 bubble, they tried in Canada, North Carolina, throughout the state of Florida and on the islands of New York, but they all failed.
Since 2019, no one had found a way to unseat a team that made its way to the pinnacle, until Sunday, when the Colorado Avalanche discovered the right combination of skill, speed and determination to knock out the champ.
For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, the NHL has a new champion. The high-flying Avalanche defeated the Lightning, 2-1, in Game 6 of the finals, to capture the Stanley Cup, one of sports’ most elusive and enduring trophies.
One by one at the postgame celebration, the Avalanche players held the Gleaming Cup aloft, kissing it as they paraded it around the Amalie Arena ice, just as the lightning was done on the same rink, their home rink, the year before.
This is the third title for the Colorado franchise, and its first since 2001, when Joe Sakic was the team’s captain. Sakic, who also played seven seasons with the organization before its move to Quebec, was once again on hand to share in the latest celebration, this time as a general manager and architect of a club so deep in talent that it meant Tampa Bay had finally met its match.
Cale Makar, the dazzling, 23-year-old defenseman, Was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs for his eight goals and 29 points. But other superb players, like center Nathan MacKinnon, wing Mikko Rantanen, the gritty forward Nazem Kadri and wing Gabriel Landeskog, all played wrestling roles in the Stanley Cup away from Tampa Bay’s stubborn grip.
The Lightning were hoping to become the first team to win three Stanley Cups in a row since the Islanders won four consecutive titles from 1980 to 1983. But accomplishing such a task is a test of endurance: The magnificent goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and the skaters part. The stars of the team’s core group like defenseman Victor Hedman, wing Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, were playing in their 68th high-intensity game in a postseason series beginning with the 2020 playoffs, which played so-called bubbles in Canada because of the pandemic.
The Lightning had played more than any other team over the past three years, fading off elimination in four games over that span, and after three years of constant mental and physical pounding, they finally gave way to a new champion.
In 2020, the Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, a neutral site without fans, and last year, they beat the Montreal Canadiens.
This year, they became the first team since those early-1980s to reach the Islanders for a third consecutive finals series, but Colorado was one of the best 10 teams the Lightning has played in the past three postseasons (including the Islanders and the Florida Panthers twice each. ).
Sakic, who has proven to be as adept at making a winner from the front office as he was with his feet on a skate and a stick in his hand, is responsible for building a team that has been widely recognized for many years as one. The emerging powerhouses in the league. But that came only after Colorado missed the playoffs six times in seven years, from 2011 to 2017.
Those were grim years for NHL hockey in Denver, but Colorado’s front office, led since 2013 by Sakic, added talented players each year. Many of them came in through high draft picks, thanks to all those losing seasons. Landeskog was taken with the second overall pick in 2011. MacKinnon was tabbed with the first pick two years later and Colorado selected Rantanen with the 10th pick in 2015. In 2017, they had a good sense of take on Makar at No. 4, and two years after they added defenseman Bowen Byram, also with a no. 4 pick.
With those homegrown players, plus key additions over the years like Kadri defenseman Devon Toews and wing Andre Burakovsky through trades, and wing Valeri Nichushkin through free agency, Colorado climbed into contention. Last year, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy, given to the team with the best regular-season record. But until now, the group was unable to convert regular-season success into a playoff glory, falling in the second round of each of the past three years.
This season, with Makar breaking out to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman and establishing a 31-year-old Kadri with a career high of 87 points, the Avalanche set franchise records for wins (56) and points (119) and most. Importantly, that dominance in the playoffs with a 16-4 record.
From training camp, the question for the Avalanche surrounding the team’s ability to overcome past failure and finally a title. That was tested in the finals, as the Avalanche lost Game 5 at home and faced the prospect of being the only second team to lose out to 37 after taking a 3-1 series lead.
But in Game 6 the Avalanche showed some championship resolution of their own.
The Lightning scored first on a goal by Steven Stamkos, the team captain, who wheeled around in the front and slipped the puck between the pads of Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper. The Lightning held that lead until MacKinnon even scored a one-time shot to the right of Vasilevskiy just 1 minute 54 seconds into the second period, stifling the cheers of the crowd.
Minutes later, Artturi Lehkonen, who joined the Avalanche trade in Sakic in March with Montreal, scored to give Colorado its first lead of the game, inching closer to its first Stanley Cup celebration since Sakic held the trophy aloft as a player. , 21 years ago.
In the third period, the fresher legs of the younger Avalanche forced the puck to stay inside the Tampa Bay for long stretches, providing further evidence that the time had finally arrived to crown a new champion.