All season, the thing that characterized the Colorado Avalanche was their relentless firepower. In the first half of the regular season, they were a goal-scoring force of historic proportions. As they ripped through the Western Conference playoffs, they were the same thing. They swept two different series while averaging five goals per game, a feat only a handful of teams this century had pulled off even once. Long regular season and playoff absences of some of Colorado’s most prolific scorers did not prevent them from having the best record in the league and then waltzing to the Stanley Cup Final.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were built to slow the Avalanche’s advance. They came into the Final with back-to-back championships to their name, the longtime best defenseman in the world (Victor Hedman), and the best goalie in the world (Andrei Vasilevskiy), plus the kind of scoring attack that could keep the Avalanche’s puck-moving defensemen honest and unable to join the rush to the net, like they’d done all year. With a playing style that was more buckled down than in their two previous, Cup-winning seasons, the Lightning were a bear to get through. The Avalanche’s cornerstone center, Nathan MacKinnon, told ESPN heading into the third period of Sunday’s Game 6, while the Avs clung to a one-goal lead, that the Lightning were “warriors”—a normal sports cliché, but not a normal one to lay on an opponent in the middle of a game.
When the game ended, the score was the same as it was when MacKinnon spoke so reverently of the Lightning with 20 minutes left: 2–1, Colorado, to wrap a six-game series win and deliver the Stanley Cup to Denver for the first time since 2001. For most of the season, the Avs did it with offense. But in the Final, they triumphed as hockey chameleons who could win a game on any terms against the least killable opposition imaginable. It capped an all-time great season for Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, who won not just the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender but also the Conn Smythe as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Likewise, the victory should establish the 2022 Avs as an extra memorable champion. All teams who win the Cup leave a historical mark, but these Avalanche were a special bunch. The NHL might not get a team as thoroughly scary as them for some time.
So much of Colorado’s road here was paved with pure, unadulterated offense. They had four players clear the 85-point mark and seven who had at least 22 goals, several of them doing so while missing big chunks of the regular season. They steamrolled the Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers with hilarious scoring outputs, sandwiched around a six-game series in which they put down a brief St. Louis Blues uprising. The Avs played pretty hockey. Every forward was more adept than the next at setting up teammates with clever, pinpoint passes, and they could all finish with authority. Their forecheck around the other team’s net was ferocious.
For a minute, that looked like their route to victory against the Lightning. They scored four goals in Game 1, the last an Andre Burakovsky overtime winner past Vasilevskiy. They won 7–0 in Game 2, reducing Vasilevskiy to a pile of guts and making it appear unlikely that the series would get as far as it did.
But champions die hard. The Lightning scored six goals of their own to keep themselves in the fight in Game 3, and then they goaded the Avalanche into a wrestling match for the rest of the series. Colorado’s Game 4 win was a 3–2 overtime decision. They dominated puck possession in the extra period and then won a bit dirty, as Nazem Kadri hopped onto the ice a few seconds before he should’ve been allowed to and slipped a shot past Vasilevskiy. (That goal checked the “you need some breaks to go your way” box that every Cup champion needs to check at some time or another.) They lost by the same 3–2 score at home in Game 5, when they had a chance to skate the Cup around their own rink.
The Lightning, who at this point had played the better part of a season’s worth of extra games over the past three seasons, should’ve been dog tired by Game 6. Whether they were or not, the Avalanche slowly squeezed the life out of them on Sunday. The Lightning got 10 shots through to the net in the first period, then nine in the second, then just four in the third as they pressed for a tying goal. In a scene that’ll be replayed forever, Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog lost his skate blade while blocking a shot and needed MacKinnon to quite literally drag his ass to the bench so the Avalanche could ice a reinforcement:
It did not feel fitting for Tampa Bay to go out without a significant push in the closing seconds. But the Lightning did not mount a threat in the final two minutes, after they pulled Vasilevskiy for a sixth skater. Their last best chance turned out to have come a few minutes before that, when future Hall of Fame forward Nikita Kucherov launched a one-timer from the left of Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper. The goalie anticipated it and snared it up against his chest:
Colorado’s big question entering the series was whether Kuemper (or his backup Pavel Francouz, because it was not entirely clear who would play) could stand up to the back-to-back champs. Kuemper is a classic 30-something journeyman who looked rough earlier in the playoffs. The record will show that he didn’t face many shots in the Final, but that is not his problem. You can only stop the pucks that get shot at you, and Kuemper made some sparkling saves even before denying Kucherov in the third period. He was an unlikely candidate to nip the Lightning’s burgeoning dynasty, but he delivered.
The Avalanche were whatever they needed to be in many different playoff circumstances. It added up to make them the sport’s undisputed best team. The best team doesn’t always win, but the Avalanche left no other possibility on the table. (The Florida Panthers had more points in the regular season but made clear early in the playoffs that they lacked the juice to go far. The Lightning swept them in the second round.) The Avs were dominant as they worked through the Western Conference with a 12–2 playoff record, and they were overwhelmingly superior to a Tampa Bay team that forced the series to six games because of a mix of championship-level perseverance and outright wizardry. For the series, the Avalanche controlled 60 percent of the scoring chances during five-on-five play, a gap tantamount to what you’d normally see if one of the best teams in the league (which the Avs very much are) played one of the worst (which the Lightning very much aren’t).
Greatness, though, isn’t just captured in numbers, but in stories. And Colorado had some good ones. Their general manager is Joe Sakic, the greatest player in franchise history and the architect of the roster that brought the team back to a high it hadn’t reached since Sakic was playing. Their best forward, MacKinnon, was a picture of befuddled devastation after a playoff elimination last year and scored the Avs’ first goal in Game 6. One of the best players providing depth behind him was Kadri, who spent most of his career in the Toronto Maple Leafs sadness factory but busted out as a superstar in 2022. Kadri has put up with immense bullshit associated with his being the most visible Muslim in the league, and on Sunday night he got to tell doubters, verbatim, to kiss his ass. The unrelated defensemen Erik and Jack Johnson, long-ago top prospects who had played a combined 30 NHL seasons without winning a Cup between them, finally got theirs. Makar, MacKinnon, and the Avs’ core players are young enough to win more of these things, but their roster was not short on veterans who had waited a long time.
In the modern, salary-capped NHL, gravity pushes teams toward the middle, whether they are good or bad. The Avalanche finished with the worst record in the league in 2017, head coach Jared Bednar’s first year on the job. They were supposed to get better, and with the right drafting, evaluation, and development, they really did. The Lightning, on the other hand, were supposed to get worse. Nobody else has made three Finals in a row since the league’s 2005 implementation of the cap. Everyone runs out of time, and that time is supposed to come a lot sooner than it did for this brilliant version of the Lightning.
When it finally happened, the Lightning got a hero’s sendoff from their home fans. It felt more like a celebration than a funeral, at least until ESPN’s cameras cut to Vasilevskiy kicking the hell out of a wall in the tunnel on his way to the locker room. There are no consolations when you reach the god tier that the Lightning have found over the past three years, since their last series loss in 2019. That year, the Columbus Blue Jackets swept them in the first round and relegated the top-seeded Lightning to a status as the league’s perennial playoff disappointment. This year, the Lightning are the opposite: an alpha dog whose demise would’ve signified a new bully in town even if it hadn’t come in Game 6 of the Final.
The Avalanche killed a team that had been unkillable. They started the job with fireworks, and they finished it with a thick blanket of defensive excellence. The hockey playoffs ask a lot of questions. The most impressive thing about the Avalanche, in the end, was how easily they answered all of them.