TAMPA, Fla. — Nathan MacKinnon could not find the words. Gabriel Landeskog cracked a smile and a joke.
After years of playoff disappointments, the Colorado Avalanche are back atop hockey's mountaintop after dethroning the two-time reigning NHL champions.
Behind a goal and an assist from MacKinnon, the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history but first time in more than two decades by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 on Sunday in Game 6 of the best-of-seven title series.
"It's just been building over time," playoff MVP-winning defenseman Cale Makar said about the Avalanche's journey. "I've been here only three years. A couple of tough exits in the playoffs. It was just all leading up to this."
It's the first title for the core group led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Makar, and it follows several early postseason exits — in the second round each of the past three seasons and the first round in 2018. The 2016-17 team was the worst in the league that season, finishing with just 48 points.
"It's hard to describe," said MacKinnon, who led the way in the clincher by blocking shots and taking big hits in addition to his offensive production. "Some tough years mixed in there, but it's all over now. We never stopped believing."
With a mix of speed, high-end talent and the experience gained from those defeats, Colorado broke through this time — earning every bit of the championship by knocking off a deep and gritty team that hoisted the Stanley Cup the past two years.
"To beat them is probably a little more satisfying, to be honest, because they are champions," said veteran forward Andrew Cogliano, who hoisted the Cup for the first time at age 35. "They know how to win. And, ultimately, when you can beat the champions, you know you really earned it."
Like the Avalanche fully expected, it wasn't easy to finish off the Lightning.
An early turnover by Makar in Sunday's game led to an easy goal by Steven Stamkos, putting Colorado in a hole, and several more bumps and bruises followed. The Avalanche tied it when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a nearly perfect shot, then went ahead on another big goal by trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen. They locked things down by holding on to the puck and held Tampa Bay without a shot on Darcy Kuemper until midway through the third period.
When the Lightning finally did shoot again, he was there. Brought in from the Arizona Coyotes in a trade last summer to shore up the sport's most important position, Kuemper was solid again and made his most important save with less than seven minutes left when he slid over to deny star Nikita Kucherov.
His teammates finished the job, and Colorado improved to 9-1 on the road this postseason.
Much like the Lightning went all in multiple times by trading high draft picks and prospects to load up for the best chance to win the championship, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic was not afraid to ante up in March to acquire Lehkonen, defenseman Josh Manson and Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado's core that had showed plenty of playoff promise but until now hadn't produced a championship.
Sakic, who captained Colorado's first two title-winning teams in 1996 and 2001, used a familiar recipe to get his team over the hump. Much like Pierre Lacroix, the architect of those Avalanche teams that had so much success after the organization moved to Denver as the former Quebec Nordiques, Sakic prioritized skill, speed and versatility.
That speed overwhelmed every opponent on the way to the final, from an opening sweep of the Nashville Predators through a hard-fought, six-game series against the St. Louis Blues and another sweep of the Edmonton Oilers. It was a different challenge against Tampa Bay, when the Avalanche needed to absorb counterpunches from the back-to-back title winners to close it out.
Tampa Bay ended up two victories short of becoming the NHL's first three-peat champion since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.
"It stings just as much as the first time," Stamkos said, referring to the Lightning's loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.
Before the series, Makar said he and his teammates were trying to end a dynasty and begin a legacy. That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to steady coach Jared Bednar, who in his sixth season found a way to focus his team on the mission at hand from the start of training camp. 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 48-point showing in his first season behind the Colorado bench.
"He stuck with it also," Rantanen said. "He had a tough first year in the league, and I did, too. I can't believe we're here six years after."
Bednar won the chess match with Jon Cooper, also a Stanley and Calder Cup champion who is considered one of the best tacticians in the NHL. The Lightning fell into an 0-2 hole facing their stiffest competition since their run of success began in 2020 and then went down 3-1 before forcing Game 6.
Asked how other teams might be able to copy the Avalanche's success, Landeskog quipped, "Get a Cale Makar somewhere." Indeed, Makar won the Conn Smythe Trophy after leading Colorado in scoring with 29 points in 20 playoff games.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and limited other key contributors for the Lightning proved too much against a stacked opponent. Depth allowed the Avalanche to overcome losing defenseman Samuel Girard to a broken sternum and finish off the Lightning even with standout forward Andre Burakovsky sidelined by injury, Valeri Nichushkin hobbling around on an injured right foot and center Nazem Kadri playing through a broken right thumb.
Colorado beat Tampa Bay before attrition could take too much of a toll and before the scary possibility of facing elimination in Game 7 against Vasilevskiy. Instead, the Avalanche will return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup. A parade is expected Thursday.
While not as emotional as the past two years when Stamkos got the trophy, Colorado's series-ending victory marks another completion of an NHL season during a pandemic — but the first back to 82 games with a normal playoff format since 2019. It was not without its stumbles, including postponing dozens of games and pulling out of the Olympics.
Commissioner Gary Bettman wasn't even able to hand the Cup to Landeskog because he tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving deputy Bill Daly to do the honors — the same scenario that happened in the basketball world earlier this month when NBA commissioner Adam Silver was unable to award the Golden State Warriors the Larry O'Brien Trophy after they beat the Boston Celtics in six games.
The Avalanche and Lightning dealt with occasional rough ice playing late into June, something that should not happen again as the league gets back to its regular schedule. When that happens, Colorado will get the chance to repeat and attempt to follow Tampa Bay in becoming a perennial contender.