TAMPA, Fla. — Ten teams over the past three years have tried to knock out the Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs as they chased a dynasty. They tried in the 2020 bubble, they tried in Canada, North Carolina, all over the state of Florida and the New York Islands, but they all failed.
Since 2019, no one had found a way to topple a team that had fought their way to the top, until Sunday when the Colorado Avalanche discovered the right combination of skill, speed and determination necessary to eliminate the champion.
For the first time since the start of the pandemic, the NHL has a new champion. The top-flight Avalanche defeated the Lightning, 2-1, in Game 6 of the Finals to win the Stanley Cup, one of the sport’s most elusive and enduring trophies.
One by one during the post-game celebration, the Avalanche players held up the sparkling cup, kissing it while parading it around the ice at Amalie Arena, just like the Lightning had done on the same rink, their home rink, the year before.
It’s 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 moving from Quebec, was once again available to share the latest celebration, this time as general manager and architect of a club so deeply talented it meant Tampa Bay had finally met his match.
Cale Makar, the dazzling 23-year-old defender, played at a high level, with eight goals and 29 points. But other superb players, like center Nathan MacKinnon, winger Mikko Rantanen, plucky forward Nazem Kadri and winger Gabriel Landeskog, the captain, all played a part in snatching the Stanley Cup at the stubborn grip of Tampa Bay.
The Lightning hoped to become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups since the Islanders won four consecutive titles from 1980 to 1983. But accomplishing such a task is a test of endurance: the magnificent goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and skaters part from the team’s core group of all-stars like defenseman Victor Hedman, winger Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, were playing their 68th high-intensity game in a playoff series beginning in the 2020 playoffs, which will took place in so-called bubbles in Canada due to the pandemic.
The Lightning had played more games than any other team in the past three years, fending off elimination in four games over that span, and after three years of constant mental and physical hammering, they finally gave way to a new champ.
In 2020, the Lightning beat the Dallas Stars at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alta., a neutral site with no fans, and last year they beat the Montreal Canadiens.
This year they became the first team since those early 1980s Islanders to reach a third straight final series, but Colorado was the best of 10 teams the Lightning have faced in the last three playoffs (including the Islanders and Florida Panthers twice each).
Sakic, who has proven almost as adept at creating a winner from the front office as he was with skates on his feet and a stick in his hand, has been responsible for building a widely recognized team for several years. as one of the league’s emerging powers. But that only came after Colorado missed the playoffs six times in seven years, from 2011 to 2017.
Those were dark years for NHL hockey in Denver, but Colorado’s front office, led since 2013 by Sakic, has added talented players every year. Many of them arrived via high draft picks, thanks to all those losing seasons. Landeskog was selected with the second overall pick in 2011. MacKinnon was seeded with the first pick two years later, and Colorado selected Rantanen with the 10th pick in 2015. In 2017, they had the good sense to take Makar at No. 4 and two years. after that they added defender Bowen Byram, also with a No. 4 pick.
With these homegrown players, as well as key additions over the years like defenseman Kadri Devon Toews and winger Andre Burakovsky through trades, and winger Valeri Nichushkin through free agency, Colorado is entered the fray. Last year, the Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the best regular season record. But so far, the group has been unable to convert regular season success into playoff glory, falling in the second round in each of the previous three years.
This season, while Makar won the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman and Kadri, 31, set a career-high 87 points, the Avalanche set franchise records for wins (56 ) and points (119) and most importantly, carried that dominance into the playoffs with a 16-4 record.
Right from training camp, the question for the Avalanche was about the team’s ability to overcome past failures and finally win a title. That was tested in the Finals, as the Avalanche lost Game 5 at home and risked becoming the second of 37 teams to lose in the Finals after taking a 3-1 series lead.
But in Game 6, the Avalanche showed their own determination to win the championship.
The Lightning scored first on a goal by team captain Steven Stamkos, who turned in front of the net and slipped the puck through the pads of Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper. The Lightning held that lead until MacKinnon tied the game on a point shot to the right of Vasilevskiy just 1 minute and 54 seconds into the second period, drowning out the cheers of the crowd.
Minutes later, Artturi Lehkonen, who joined the Avalanche in a trade Sakic made in March with Montreal, scored to give Colorado their first lead of the game, bringing the team one step closer to their first Stanley Cup celebration. since Sakic held the trophy as a player. , 21 years ago.
In the third period, the younger Avalanche’s cooler legs forced the puck to stay inside the Tampa Bay end for long stretches, providing further proof that the time had finally come to crown a new champion.