TAMPA, Fla. — Ten teams over the last three years have attempted to eliminate the Tampa Bay Lightning in the postseason as they pursued a dynasty. They tried in the 2020 bubble, they tried in Canada, across 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 needed to knock out the champ.
For the first time since the onset of the pandemic, the N.H.L. has a new champion. The high-flying Avalanche defeated the gallant Lightning, 2-1, in Game 6 of the finals, to capture the Stanley Cup, one of sports’ most elusive and enduring trophies.
“I grew up with a picture on my wall of a Stanley Cup team, the Colorado Avalanche of 2001,” said Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado’s captain. “My dream was to one day be in that picture wearing this jersey. We did it.”
One by one in the postgame celebration, the Avalanche players, led by Landeskog, lifted the gleaming Cup aloft, kissing it as they paraded it around the Amalie Arena ice, just as the Lightning had done on the same ice, their home rink, the year before.
It is the third title for the Colorado franchise, and its first since that 2001 team that Landeskog so admired, with Joe Sakic as the team’s captain. Sakic, who also played seven seasons with the organization before its move from Quebec, was on hand once again to share in the latest celebration, this time as the general manager and architect of a club so deep in talent that it meant Tampa Bay had finally met its match.
“It’s so special anytime you can win the Stanley Cup,” Sakic said. “The only difference is, it’s a lot more stressful when you have to watch rather than play. I’m just so proud of what these players accomplished.”
Among those terrific players was Cale Makar, the dazzling, 23-year-old defenseman, who was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the most valuable player in the playoffs for his eight goals and 29 points.
When asked during a television interview what other teams could learn from the Avalanche, Landeskog said, “Go out and find a Cale Makar somewhere.”
But other superb players, like Landeskog, center Nathan MacKinnon, wing Mikko Rantanen, the gritty forward Nazem Kadri and even the sometimes-maligned goalie Darcy Kuemper all played a role in wresting the Stanley Cup away from Tampa Bay’s stubborn grip.
Going into the series, the Avalanche relished the chance to showcase their own abilities against the best in the league.
“You want to beat the best,” Sakic said. “We are hoping we can start something the way Tampa did. Three Stanley Cup finals in a row, what an organization. That’s what we want to become, to try and sustain it just like they did.”
But the Lightning wanted more. They sought to become the first team to win three Stanley Cups in a row since the Islanders won four consecutive titles from 1980 to 1983.
“It’s a terrible feeling,” said Steven Stamkos, the Tampa Bay captain. “Sometimes you have to step back and realize, that’s a great team over there. Congratulations to them. But it’s tough.”
Stamkos, who scored the game’s first goal, is the leader of a core of Lightning players that includes the magnificent goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and star skaters like defenseman Victor Hedman, wing Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, most of whom were playing in their 68th high-intensity game in a postseason series beginning with the 2020 playoffs, which were played in so-called bubbles in Canada because of the pandemic.
The Lightning had won 11 playoff series in a row, but in doing so they had played more games than any other team over the past three years, fending off elimination in four games over that span. After all the mental and physical pounding, they finally gave way to a new champion.
“We just ran out of gas,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said.
Never was that more evident than in the third period Sunday, when the younger, fresher Avalanche kept the puck tethered in the Lightning end and allowed only four shots on net, providing more evidence that it was time to crown a new champion.
Of course, there was the obligatory scramble in the closing minutes after Tampa Bay pulled Vasilevskiy for an extra skater. Landeskog blocked a shot with a skate and its blade flew off, rendering him unable to skate. As he crawled on all fours to get to the bench, MacKinnon grabbed him by the jersey to help him, leaving two players indisposed.
“I was panicking because I saw they were coming down and Nate was pushing me,” Landeskog said. “I didn’t want to be laying on the ice in the middle of our zone when they went down to score. I didn’t know how to do it. I’ve never done that before.”
Landeskog, one of the longest-tenured members of the team along with defenseman Erik Johnson, praised Sakic, who has proved to be nearly as adept at creating a winner from the front office as he was with skates on his feet and a stick in his hand. As general manager, Sakic is responsible for building a team that has been widely recognized for several years as one of 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 N.H.L. hockey in Denver, but Sakic, who has served as general manager since 2013, added talented players each year, many coming in via 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 the good sense to take Makar at No. 4, and two years after that 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 playoff glory, falling in the second round in each of the previous three years.
This season, with Makar breaking out to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman and the 31-year-old Kadri establishing a career high with 87 points, the Avalanche set franchise records for wins (56) and points (119) and most important, carried that dominance into the playoffs with a 16-4 record.
From training camp, the question for the Avalanche surrounded the team’s ability to overcome past failure and finally win a title. That was tested in the finals, as they lost Game 5 at home and faced the prospect of becoming only the second team out of 37 to lose the finals after taking a 3-1 series lead.
But in Game 6 the Avalanche showed some championship resolve of their own.
The Lightning held their 1-0 lead until MacKinnon evened the score on 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 in a trade Sakic made in March with Montreal, scored to give Colorado its first lead of the game, inching the team closer to its first Stanley Cup celebration since Sakic held the trophy aloft as a player, 21 years ago.
This time, it went to Landeskog first, and then he passed it to Johnson, who has been with Colorado since a midseason trade in 2010-11. That included the agonizing 2016-17 season, when the Avs finished with the worst record in the league. But even then, Johnson never doubted that he and Landeskog would one day lift one of the greatest trophies in sports.
“It’s heavier than you think,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing. Gabe told me the last couple of years, ‘You’re getting it first.’ It’s just a super, gratifying feeling.”