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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Colorado Avalanche beat Tampa Bay to clinch Stanley Cup

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, left, celebrates with Valeri Nichushkin Josh Manson after scoring the Avalanche’s first goal Sunday in Tampa, Florida.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan O’Halloran Tribune News Service

TAMPA, Fla. – The NHL’s worst team only five years ago, the Avalanche completed its journey to the top of the hockey world Sunday night, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 21 years.

The Avalanche, which won the series in six games and dethroned the two-time defending champion Lighting, completed a tour de force postseason. It never trailed in any of its four series, never dropped consecutive games and lost only four of its 20 games.

And the clinching win was its 10th come-from-behind victory, tying a league record. The Avs received second-period goals from center Nathan MacKinnon and winger Artturi Lehkonen.

The third period was 20 minutes of high drama … most of it produced by the Avalanche. As the Avs created chance after chance, Tampa Bay had no shots on goal in the first 10 minutes of the period.

The Lightning’s first premium third-period chance came with 6:32 left when Kuemper slid laterally to stop a shot by Nikita Kucherov.

Tampa Bay pulled the goalie with two minutes remaining. Avs captain Gabe Landeskog blocked a shot and literally crawled off the ice ahead of a stoppage with 1:15 left. Kuemper made a save through traffic with 1:10 left. MacKinnon cleared the puck down the ice with 25 seconds.

And at 10:48 p.m. local time, the Avs were champions.

The mob scene behind the Avs’ goal included every player who threw each of their sticks, gloves and helmets into the air.

Unable to get over the second-round hump the previous three postseasons, the Avalanche of MacKinnon and captain Gabe Landeskog, defenseman Cale Makar and winger Mikko Rantanen, center Nazem Kadri and winger Valeri Nichushkin joined franchise icons like Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote as champions.

June 26, 2022, joined June 10, 1996, and June 9, 2001, as Avalanche championship-winning dates. The Avs became only the fourth Cup champion since 1968 to win all four of their series on road ice; they were 9-1 in away games during their two-month skate to glory.

After wins over Florida (’96) and New Jersey (’01), Sakic received the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. All these years later, Sakic-the-general-manager was the architect of this team. He hired coach Jared Bednar out of the American Hockey League. He drafted Makar. He signed low-frill/high-impact free agents like Nichushkin. And he traded for Kadri, Lehkonen and defenseman Devon Toews, among others.

The win completed a masterpiece of a postseason for the Avalanche. Since the NHL introduced all best-of-seven rounds 35 years ago, the Avs’ 16-4 record was tied for the second-best behind only the 1988 Edmonton Oilers, who went 16-2 and had the game’s greatest all-time player in Wayne Gretzky.

This Avalanche team overwhelmed teams with equal parts star power and grittiness. It had superstars in MacKinnon and Makar.

It had leadership in Landeskog and defenseman Erik Johnson. It had back-of-the-lineup role players in center Darren Helm and winger Andrew Cogliano. And it had just enough goaltending, led by Kuemper.

The Avs needed all 18 skaters and Kuemper in Game 6 to outlast the Lightning, which scored first for the third time in four games.

Makar was involved in Tampa Bay’s opening goal. He coughed it up near the goal-line and the puck deflected off the skate of Lightning winger Ondrej Palat and right to center Steven Stamkos, who scored five-hole against Kuemper.

Just 1:54 into the second, the Avalanche tied it on MacKinnon’s 13th of the playoffs.

Skating 6-on-5 because of a delayed Lightning penalty, Landeskog passed center point to defenseman Bo Byram, who fed it to MacKinnon for the one-timer from the circle that beat goalie Andrei Vaslievskiy to the blocker side.

The Avalanche forecheck got cooking throughout the second period, but the score remained tied until the 12:38 mark.

MacKinnon skated up the middle and his pass attempt to defenseman Josh Manson on his right went off defenseman Erik Cernak and bounded left to Lehkonen, whose quick snap shot beat Vaslievskiy to the high glove side.

The Avalanche’s climb to the top of the NHL was literally terrible-to-terrific. In the 2016-17 season, Bednar was a rookie coach and his roster was young-and-not-yet-ready-to-win. The Avs won only 22 of 82 games and suffered six losing streaks of at least five games. Sakic, though, did not panic, choosing to stick with Bednar in the view the coach would grow along with his roster. Sakic was right.

In reality, the Avalanche’s journey to planning a victory parade started in the bowels of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on June 10, 2021. The Avs had blown a 2-0 lead, losing four consecutive games to a Vegas Golden Knights team that wasn’t more talented, but more resilient and resourceful and could get up after taking a punch and also deliver a haymaker.

Much like the Denver Broncos’ first championship team, which was upset by Jacksonville only to win the next two Super Bowls, the Avalanche learned from having its heart broken.