EDMONTON -- In the elation of the moment, Nathan MacKinnon wasn’t the least bit concerned about how much the Colorado Avalanche had given up to acquire Artturi Lehkonen.
All he knew was that general manager Joe Sakic made the right move in picking up the versatile Finnish winger, no matter what the price tag was. And for the record, he would have given up more than defence prospect Justin Barron and the 2023 second-round draft pick that was shipped to the Montreal Canadiens to get Lehkonen for this year’s stretch run and next season.
Well, the move was another stroke of brilliance as Lehkonen delivered the series-clincher at 1:19 of overtime on Monday, tipping a Cole Makar shot and then depositing home the loose change to secure a 6-5 victory over the Edmonton Oilers and a four-game series sweep in the Western Conference Final.
“That's why you trade for guys like that at the deadline,” said Avalanche centre Nathan MacKinnon, who scored the 4-4 goal at 13:30 of the third period on a brilliant individual effort. “I'd trade 10 first-rounders for him right now. We'll all be gone when those guys come in the league, anyways.”
For Lehkonen, it was his sixth goal of the playoffs and propelled the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001.
It was the second time in as many seasons that Lehkonen supplied the series clincher to send his team to the final -- he had the overtime winner for Montreal in Game 6 against Vegas last season.
But it took an official’s review before the celebration was officially on and the handshake line got underway.
“Hopefully it's not high sticking,” said Lehkonen. “I didn't really think too much for a while after (I scored) but then I saw they were going to look at it. That's pretty much it. Kind of funny. It was a good bounce. I got a tip on the first shot and it bounced right on my tape.
“It's certainly been a little bit like a roller coaster. (The) chance to play for the Stanley Cup doesn't come very often. You've got to make the most of it. This year is an opportunity for us. You've just got to go out there and take it.”
Erik Johnson was the first player to speak to the media after the Clarence Campbell Bowl was handed out to the Avalanche and he could hardly contain his emotions.
The first overall pick in the 2006 NHL Draft (by the St. Louis Blues) has been a member of the Avalanche for 12 seasons and this is the furthest he’s ever been in the post-season.
“I've waited a long time to have an opportunity to have a chance to play for a Cup,” said Johnson. “I saw the puck in, I was just so happy that it went in and we advanced and now we get a chance to go for the Cup. ... I was excited, so excited."
“There's been a lot of ups and downs. When I first got to Colorado in 2011, the team was dead last, had some up-and-down years after that and we've been knocking on the door here the last couple years. Some injuries and things that happened along the way, you never know if that opportunity's going to come. Just soaking it all in and trying to embrace the moment and just having a lot of fun. It's been 900 games, 15 years.”
By contrast, Johnson’s frequent defence partner Bowen Byram is approaching his 21st birthday and has only 49 games on his NHL resume -- and he’s about to play for the Stanley Cup as well.
Makar continued his sensational play, scoring the ice-breaker on the power play through a perfect screen by Gabe Landeskog and then chipped in four assists (including the shot on the OT winner) to become just the first defenceman in NHL history to produce a five-point effort in an elimination game.
“There's not much left to be said. I think we're running out of words for it,” said Johnson. “He's ultra dynamic, a game-breaker, kills penalties, dominates both ends of the ice. Humble guy, good head on his shoulders, good person. I don't know. There's nothing he can't do. He keeps showing us what he can do every night. We're lucky because we're watching greatness, and we don't see that a lot.”
The Oilers saw a lot of it throughout this four-game series and Makar’s contributions were not limited to the offensive end.
Not only did he chip in two goals and nine points in the four games, Makar and defence partner Devon Toews (who scored his fifth goal of the playoffs on Monday) did an outstanding job against the Oilers' dynamic duo of Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid.
“Obviously it's a cool accomplishment. You're making it to the biggest stage of the world in hockey, and it's exciting,” said Makar, who is up to five goals and 22 points in 14 games in the playoffs. “You take it in for the night and then, for me, kind of move on and turn the focus to the next step. That's what's made this team successful so far this year. We don't look too far ahead. We stay in the moment. Enjoy this one for a bit and then go on to the next."
Playing without Nazem Kadri (thumb), the Avalanche found a way to register six goals on a night they clearly weren’t at their best, overcoming a 4-2 deficit by scoring four times in what was a six-goal third.
Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen came into the third-round series with only one empty-net goal but he scored in each of these four games and had six points, elevating his game when his team needed him most.
The Avalanche also found a way to advance while running with backup goalie Pavel Francouz for the bulk of the series after Darcy Kuemper exited Game 1 with an upper-body injury.
Kuemper dressed as the backup on Monday and should be good to go for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against either the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Rangers.
The Final won’t start until June 15 at earliest and could begin on June 18, depending on how deep the Eastern Conference final goes.
“A week off is going to help us with the banged-up (guys) that we have,” said Rantanen. “But we're used to it. After the first round, we had a week off, too, so it's nothing new to us. From that series, it doesn't matter at all. Whoever comes, that's who we play. We don't care at all.”
There was certainly a sense of accomplishment for this Avalanche team that endured three consecutive second-round exits before this current run.
But there is a larger goal in mind and the Avalanche won’t be satisfied until they reach it.
“Obviously, it's very special. And yeah, I mean, I'd probably be lying if I told you that I thought we'd be here one day during the (2016-17) season,” said Landeskog, referring to the year the team went 22-56-0-4 and finished last overall. “That was hard especially and that was as close to rock bottom as you can come when it comes to playing in the NHL.
“We've changed some things in how we do things around the rink and how we prepare and how we play and it comes with experience as well. And then you start making the playoffs the next year after that and you start believing then you start seeing progress and start moving. Losing the second round three years in a row was tough, but you’ve got to trip on the finish line a few times sometimes before you cross it and I think for us that's been true so far. Job's not done and it's going to be another tough series, but we'll get some rest here and get ready to go.”
The last word goes to Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, who is in his sixth season and continues to set the tone with his business-like approach and steady hand on the wheel.
“It's just resilience, belief, guys just wanting to win and that's stepping up and making plays at key times. A lot of fight in our team and I'm really proud of them for what they've accomplished to this point,” said Bednar. “Our first goal was the regular season and then round 1, 2 and 3 and it's sort of a five-step process for us to be the best team we can possibly be.
“Get our habits right through the regular season and find a way to advance and continue to try to get better. We've done that. I've been with this team now, this is Year 6, and a lot of growth and mentally, structurally -- just the whole gamut. They're going to get a chance to play for it now. Hopefully we go out and put our best foot forward and go win the thing.”