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The Avalanche Won the Stanley Cup—With a Little Help From the Lightning

For decades, Colorado had been trying to get over the hump in the postseason, much like the pre-2020 Lightning. And now, after a tight 2-1 win in Game 6 Sunday night, they’ve finally done it.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This piece, originally published ahead of Game 5, has been updated in light of the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup win.

Hockey is a game of teensy bounces and big superstitions, of you-know-it-when-you-see-it refereeing and unwritten rules. Which is why, back in early June, when the Colorado Avalanche swept the Edmonton Oilers to advance to the Stanley Cup final, Avs players weren’t really sure how to react.

Each year, the winners of the Western Conference final receive the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, a perfectly lovely trophy that celebrates the accomplishment of being one of the two best teams in the NHL. But over time, opinions have shifted about whether it pleases the hockey gods to seem pleased by this penultimate chalice. Many players have handled the question by definitively not handling the trophy, as if it has championship cooties. Others have gone ahead and grabbed the thing, as if to ask: Are you not entertained? And on June 6, after some hectic discussion, Colorado decided to split the difference, in more ways than one.

A few players tentatively touched the trophy—including Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog, who have been through plenty of setbacks and successes with the Avalanche. But MacKinnon also side-eyed his teammates as they celebrated the franchise’s biggest achievement since 2001, concerned that they might be having visible fun. “No smiling!” he hollered as the cameras clicked. Many guys obeyed and stood stone-faced. Some, who either couldn’t hear or just couldn’t help it, smiled wide.

It was a dumb, delightful bit of overthinking and posturing, of searching for the unknowable balance between letting a moment breathe and getting a moment just right. And it was the perfect contrast to what was to come a few weeks later, on Sunday night, when the Avalanche defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 to win the only hardware they’d ever wanted to hold, the Stanley Cup. This time, there was no hesitation, just a whole lot of hoisting; no stony faces, just sporadically toothed grins.

There was MacKinnon, rolling around on the ice with his longtime colleague Erik Johnson and later joking that he “might get fat as shit” as he celebrates this offseason. There was playoff MVP Cale Makar taking in the glory of a championship season at the rosy-cheeked age of 23. There was Landeskog, who as a teen in 2012 was saddled with the responsibility of captaining a then-floundering franchise, sporting a robust playoff beard and a look of contented disbelief. “I grew up with a picture on my wall of a Stanley Cup team, the Colorado Avalanche of 2001,” he told reporters Sunday. “My dream was to one day be in that picture wearing this jersey. We did it.”.

There was the whole Avalanche team, out there on the ice getting ready for a big group photo that was made 10 times better when forward Nicolas Aube-Kubel skated in and immediately dropped the Cup, a reminder that all the title dreams in the world can never account for the sloppy joys of achieving it. And there went the Tampa Bay Lightning, skating off their home ice without the third straight Cup victory they sought, the loss stinging that much more because they know exactly how sweet it feels to be the winners.

Last summer, The Athletic reported, Colorado head coach Jared Bednar reached out to Lightning head coach Jon Cooper to ask for advice on getting over the hump. His team had reached the playoffs in each of the past four seasons, and he found Tampa’s success to be “a perfect blueprint” for what Colorado was trying to build. Both teams have, for years, demonstrated the extent to which winning the Cup can truly be a long haul: not just because of the requisite four brutal rounds of playoff hockey, with all the injuries and comebacks and mind games involved, but also through, like, a near-decade of staying resilient even while eating shit.

Before the Lightning were a juggernaut contending for a Stanley Cup three-peat, they were a team battling postseason demons. Between 2011 and 2019, Tampa lost in the Cup final once and in the conference final three times (all three of which were in Game 7). Twice, the team was swept in the first round—including, most humiliatingly, in 2019, after they’d just won the President’s Cup. A lesser franchise may have panicked and done something drastic. The Lightning, who had hired Cooper in 2013 when he was a plucky minor league Calder Cup–winning coach, and who stuck with him so resolutely that he’s now the longest-tenured head coach in the league, stayed put.

The team has long featured the enviable duo of forward Steven Stamkos and defenseman Victor Hedman, drafted first and second in 2008 and 2009, respectively. That core pair was supplemented by the addition of future tentpole winger (and Hart winner) Nikita Kucherov a few years later and strategic acquisitions like reliable blueliner Ryan McDonagh, a workhorse second only to Hedman in minutes logged in the playoffs. The longer they played, the more keenly they understood how hard it is to actually win. “You never know when you’re gonna have this opportunity again,” Stamkos said after losing the Cup in 2015, “and [if] you let it slip through your fingers …” He trailed off.

Before the Avalanche finally broke through to the Cup final, meanwhile, they were a team battling postseason demons, too. Since 2014, Colorado lost in the first round twice and the second round three times (two of which were in Game 7). Three years in a row the Avs missed the playoffs completely, including, most humiliatingly, in 2017, when they won only 22 games. A lesser franchise may have panicked and done something drastic. The Avalanche, who had hired Bednar at the start of that season (after Patrick Roy flounced) when he was a nondescript minor league Calder Cup–winning coach, stayed put.

The team has long featured the enviable duo of Landeskog and MacKinnon, drafted second and first in 2011 and 2013, respectively. That core pair was supplemented by the addition of immediate tentpole defenseman (and Calder/Norris winner) Makar a few seasons later and strategic acquisitions like Nazem Kadri, whose 1.23 points per game this season was roughly double his career average, and Artturi Lehkonen, who scored four game-winners this postseason, including on Sunday night. The longer they played, the more keenly they understood how hard it is to actually win. “You always expect you’re going to be [in the playoffs] and get a kick at the can every time,” Landeskog told ESPN in 2019, “but you realize pretty fast that it’s not like that, that it’s pretty hard making it. It’s not a guarantee. You gotta earn it.” Since that time, they sure have tried.

For the past few seasons, Colorado Avalanche fans have made a habit of singing about all the small things. And had a few small things gone any other way last week in Game 4, the series could have unfolded quite differently. Last Wednesday night, after Kadri scored a disappearing overtime goal that put the Avalanche just one win away from their first Stanley Cup in two decades, no one—once again—was really sure how to react.

The confusion came in waves. At first, no one could locate the puck: not the players, the TV announcers, or the officials. (Kadri’s goal was similar to another scored 12 years earlier, although that one didn’t just win a game, it won a Cup.) They found it eventually, but once that had been cleared up, things got murkier. Lightning coach Jon Cooper ended a postgame press conference cryptically early, moping that, “You’re going to see what I mean when you see that goal. My heart breaks for the players.” On the broadcast and on the internet, game footage was examined for transgressions. Botched scoresheets were parsed. And, as is eternally the case in all hockey disputes, everyone with a take sounded like an avowed whataboutist.

On the one hand, six Colorado skaters—one too many men—had their feet on the ice when Kadri’s goal snuck into the net! On the other hand, didn’t Tampa appear to have seven? On the one hand, it wasn’t fair or cool for the Lightning to lose a game under these conditions! On the other hand, hadn’t they won one under the same conditions against the New York Islanders just last year, en route to back-to-back Cups? On the one hand, the too-many-men penalty is the rule of law! On the other hand, isn’t it more like a term of art, a matter of opinion, a surrender to the flow?

After the game, the NHL issued a press release quadrupling down on its opinion and refusing to yield. The no-call was the right call, the league said. The next day, Colorado head coach Jared Bednar appraised the play as “nothing, honestly” and added, “I thought that happens every second shift in the entire game.” Which meant that all the lawyerly protest Cooper could muster did not matter; which meant whether you liked it or not, the Colorado Avalanche were legitimately up three games to one; which meant that on Friday night, back in Denver, the Stanley Cup was in the building, just waiting to be held.

It would have to wait a little longer. The two teams traded goals throughout Game 5, with Colorado’s Valeri Nichushkin contributing a goal and an assist and Tampa’s Ondrej Palat recording what would become the Lightning’s game-winner with six and a half minutes to play in the third. Tampa’s 27-year-old star goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, in his 103rd playoff appearance, stopped 35 shots, the fourth time this series he’d made 30-something saves; Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper gave up a couple he’d like back, including one “knuckler.” After the game, Landeskog maintained a calm front. “We’ll bounce right back,” he said.

The final game of the 2021-22 NHL season was appropriately tense. The Lightning scored first, making it hard for anyone watching not to start daydreaming about a possible Game 7, and all the chaos involved: margins as razor-thin as a skate blade crossing a blue line; fate as cold as a goal post; leads as fickle as a swallowed whistle. But the Avalanche never panicked. They stayed put, drawing on their depth and experience this season.

Eight different Avs players recorded double-digit points for the team in 20 playoff games. (Two of them, Makar and winger Mikko Rantanen, have contributed 10 or more power-play assists alone.) The team as a whole rolled through this year’s playoffs in a businesslike manner, coolly sweeping both the Predators and the Oilers and beating the Blues three times on the road.

On Sunday night, MacKinnon’s tying goal came on the kind of strange play that hinged on a few millimeters. Colorado clung to a 2-1 lead following Lehkonen’s goal midway through the second, and that last period and a half lasted forever. With just over a minute left to play, Landeskog blocked a shot that broke his skate blade clean off and reduced him to a baby deer just learning to walk, and then to a baby just learning to crawl, as MacKinnon all but picked his captain up and threw him toward the bench. It was as hectic and beautiful as any of the best Stanley Cup moments.

Sunday night’s victory marked the franchise’s first championship since 2001, the year captain Joe Sakic took the Stanley Cup and immediately handed it to Ray Bourque. If there’s anyone who knows that winning a championship rarely happens overnight, it’s Sakic, who is now the Avalanche GM. His first Cup, in 1996, came nine years after he was first drafted into the NHL, a span of time that is familiar to some of his players. (“I’m going on my ninth year next year,” MacKinnon vented last season after being ousted in the playoffs, “and haven’t won shit.”) Sakic’s second Cup took another five seasons. In a sport that so frequently turns on the tiniest of details, one of Colorado’s biggest competitive advantages over the majority of its peers (although not so much over Tampa) is that the team has a front office so willing and able to see the bigger picture.

In the moments after winning the Western Conference final, the Avs’ leaders talked amongst themselves about what they should do about the Campbell trophy. Some players, like Erik Johnson—the longest-serving Av—had zero interest in touching it. Others weren’t sure. Then, all at once, their heads turned: There was Sakic, walking out of the tunnel. “Just touch the damn thing,” he advised. (It’s what he did back in the day, after all.)

On Sunday night, no one needed any hand-holding about how to handle a trophy. They all knew exactly how to react: with smiles all around, with their sweaty handprints all over the Cup.

An earlier version of this piece misstated how much Vasilevskiy played in Game 2.