By: Marvin Azrak
“Turn the lights off, carry me home”
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 since 2001, beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 of the final Sunday night.
The Avalanche went 16-4 throughout the playoffs, but the veteran and seasoned team showed nerves by falling at home 3-2 in game 5, before the NHL’s best road-team refocused and officially reached the top of the mountain by unseating the potential dynasty that was the two-time reigning champion Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in game six down in Florida.
An early turnover by Makar led to an easy goal by Steven Stamkos, putting Colorado in a hole and dreams of game 7 started popping in everyone’s minds. The Avalanche responded when Nathan MacKinnon beat the 2021 Conn Smythe winner in Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot on the power play, for his 13th of the playoffs, and went ahead on another big goal by trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen who’s goal wound up being the cup-winner, which is ironic since he had the OT winner that won the Western conference finals for the Avs against the Edmonton Oilers. When the final seconds died down, the team erupted in ecstasy throwing sticks, gloves and helmets onto ice as they leaped towards goalie Darcey Kemper for the celebration.
Dreams have finally been realized for 14 year vets like Erik Jonson, as the Denver native spent all of his career with the team he grew up rooting for and finally took one home. Colorado went 9-1 on the road these playoffs, and cemented a legacy for GM Joe Sakic, who was a hall of fame player and captain with the 2001 cup-winning Avs.
The Avalanche had a top 10 pick every year from 2009 to 2019, so this was the quintessential definition of how strenuous the road to the promise land is.
For Joe, taking Nathan MacKinnon with the first pick in the 2013 draft was about finding what Sakic called a “game-changer.”Same with Cale Makar, who was somehow still available when the Avs turn came up at NO4 in 2017 after losing the lottery in a season where they put up a league worst 48 points.
From there, Joe wheeled and worked his magic to building an Avalanche team reminiscent of the robust 2001 Cup team he captained during his hall of fame playing days. In 2019, he lured Andrei Burakovsky from Washington, for Scott Kosmachuk, a second-round pick, and a third round pick. Burakovsky would go onto score the overtime winner for the Avalanche in game one of the finals lifting them to a 4-3 win. Joe also signed Valeri Nichuskin $900,000, before seeing him battle through a gruesome foot injury and put up 15 points in 20 playoff games this past title run.
Kadri was a 2019 trade piece from his hometown Maple Leafs, with the Avs sending back Alex Kerfoot, Tyson Barrie, and a sixth-round pick. In 2020, Joe dealt with the man considered to be the most brawny GM hockey has to offer in Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello, and acquired hard-nosed veteran Devon Towes for two second round picks.
It was thought that Colorado had the pieces they needed for a cup run in 2022, but this past offseason lost Vezina-trophy candidate Philllip Grubauer to the newly intergraded Seattle Kraken in a free agency stunner, before Grubauer put up a career-worst year for his new team. Sakic used the inadvertently acquired cap room to trade for Kuemper from the Arizona Coyotes for prospect Conner Timms and a first round pick that’s now basically a second rounder with the Avs having won the cup.
Depth allowed the Avalanche to overcome losing defenseman Samuel Girard to a broken sternum and finish off the Lightning even with the standout forward Burakovsky sidelined by injury and center Nazem Kadri playing through a broken right thum, who himself wrote his own heroics, potting the overtime winner in a 3-2 Avalanche game 4 victory for a commanding 3-1 series lead they ultimate wouldn’t relinquish.
Moreover, Joe’s 2022 trade deadline acquisitions were imperative to the Avalanche regaining their mount atop the NHL landscape once more. He acquired Artturi Lehkonen; Cup Winning Goal, Western Conference Winning Goal, 14 Points in 20 Games. Josh Manson came over from Anaheim and had , 7 Points in 20 Games, 18-20 Minutes a night
The combined cost? One 2023/2024 2nd, and two prospects.
But to win, you need seasoned vets and it’s what Joe got with 15 year vet Andrew Cogliano who was acquired from San Jose. He had six Points in 16 Games, Game 4 tying goal, and filled in nicely as a great bottom 6 role
Nico Sturm, a 27 year-old acquired from the Wild, also played well in limited minutes, and even assisted on Cogliano’s Game 4 tying goal which led to a win.
That cost? Tyson Jost and a 2024 5th rounder. Worth every penny.
The title is also due in large part to coach Jared Bednar. Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, American Hockey League’s Calder Cup and ECHL’s Kelly Cup — all after that miserable 22-56-4, 48-point showing in his first season behind the Colorado bench with a-112 goal differential.
The trickery is five minutes at a time, one that showcased itself as the final period of game six progressed. Even before the final against Tampa Bay, Bednar had his buying into that authenticity, , and players acknowledged alleviating it on the bench during contests. The chatter became a soundtrack to the Avalanche cruising through the playoffs with 16 wins in 20 games. Using their speed, the Avalanche swept the Nashville Predators in the first round, took out the St. Louis Blues in six, swept the Edmonton Oilers in the West final and finished off Tampa Bay in six on Sunday night, handing the Lightning just their second defeat in their last 13 series dating back to 2019.
The Avalanche winning the Cup was predictable. Colorado being the better team in the final followed the path that has been set out since October. They went 56-19-7 and were the top seeds out West all season long before seeing it translate in the playoffs.
Asked how other teams might be able to copy the Avalanche’s success, Landeskog said , “Get a Cale Makar somewhere.” Indeed, Makar won the Conn Smythe after leading Colorado in scoring with 29 points in 20 games, becoming the first defenseman to win the Hobey Baker (College hockey MVP) Calder, Norris, and now a Stanley Cup to add to that resume at just 23 years of age.
For Tampa, it simply was the end of an historic ride that included two straight cups and 11 straight playoff series wins, which doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon despite this loss. But poor Corey Perry.
The winger became the first player in NHL history to lose three Stanley Cup Finals in a row for three different teams. Perry spent the 2020 season with the Dallas Stars and 2021campaign with the Montreal Canadiens, both of whom lost to the Lightning.
When he joined the same Lightning team he lost to in the previous two seasons in 2022, they fell two wins shy of lifting up the chalice. I Corey is 36 years old and has spent 14 years in the NHL, so here’s to hoping he gets his name engraved in the near future next to the Cup he earned with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
Hey, maybe go join the Avalanche this offseason! Yes, Congratulations Colorado on a well-deserved title. Now go party!