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, in North Carolina, 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 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 in 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 had done on the same rink, their home rink, the year before.
It 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 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 with 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, the captain, all played a role in wresting the Stanley Cup away from Tampa Bay’s stubborn grip.
When asked during a television interview what other teams could learn from the Avalanche, Landeskog said, “Go out and find a Cale Makar somewhere.”
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 skaters part of the team’s core group of stars 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 were played in so-called bubbles in Canada because of the pandemic.
The Lightning had played more games than any other team over the past three years, fending 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 Islanders to reach a third consecutive finals series, but Colorado was the best of the 10 teams the Lightning have played in the past three postseasons (including the Islanders and the Florida Panthers twice each ).
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, 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 NHL hockey in Denver, but Colorado’s front office, led since 2013 by Sakic, added talented players each year. Many of them came 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 the Avalanche lost Game 5 at home and faced the prospect of becoming only the second team out of 37 to lose in the finals after taking a 3-1 series lead.
But in Game 6 the Avalanche showed some championship resolve of their own.
The Lightning scored first on a goal by Steven Stamkos, the team captain, who wheeled around in front the goal and slipped the puck between the pads of Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper. The Lightning held that 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.
In the third period, the fresher legs of the younger Avalanche forced the puck to stay inside the Tampa Bay end for long stretches, providing further evidence that the time had finally arrived to crown a new champion.