TAMPA – Watch the way Nathan MacKinnon winds up, legs chugging like hot pistons, and rampages 200 feet. A one-man breakout, a bulleting zone entry, a scoring chance waiting to happen.
Marvel at those two poems Cale Makar calls feet, as they dance sideways, glide backwards and dart forwards, breaking your ankles and writing possibilities.
Gawk at the direct, forceful lines dug by Valeri Nichushkin toward the opponents’ crease.
Yes, they operate in the NHL’s highest altitude. But that’s not the reason hockey’s newest champion, the Colorado Avalanche, will take your breath away.
“The most explosive team that we’ve played,” praised Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, prior to having the torch snatched in a six-game thriller.
“I think it’s the best team we’ve played,” added Alex Killorn.
In defeating the two-time champion Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 on a sweltering Sunday night in Florida, snuffing out Tampa’s streak of series victories at 11, this attack-mode beast of Joe Sakic’s creation asserted that, yes, offence can win championships.
Bolting its way to the title with a ridiculous 16-4 record, highlighted by 10 comeback wins, a 4.25-goals-per-game clip, and a deadly 33 per cent power-play conversion rate, the Avalanche can now bask in one of the most dominant playoff runs since the 1988 Edmonton Oilers went 16-2. (Sources say, the Boys on the Bus could wheel too.)
What a blessing it is for the sport’s trajectory, to see a pinching, rushing, checking, unrelenting bunch of puck-movers parade around home ice with Lord Stanley’s Cup, Colorado’s first in 21 years.
Jared Bednar’s vision of how the game should be played begins with a structure willing to slam the gas (even on the penalty kill) and requires full-lunged skill to execute properly.
“That started from Day 1, when I interviewed with Joe for the job and the type of idea he had and the picture you have of the way you want the Avalanche to play. Very similar to the way I like to coach and players like to play,” Bednar says. “We have fun with it.
“It’s not just how fast you can skate. You have to be able to execute. We talked about being predictable to ourselves, try to get up the ice quick. We’ve gotten better at it over the years, and Joe’s done a nice job of getting guys who fit into the mold and can play that way.”
“We’re definitely a fast team,” adds captain Landeskog, before hoisting the thing first. “And that’s the way we want to play.
“We have some fast skaters, but I think it’s the systems we play and how fast we want to move the puck up and having the defencemen join the play. That’s what makes us fast. It’s kind of a relentless forecheck, and whether that forecheck happens in the O-zone or the neutral zone, we want to turn it and go the other way pretty quick.”
The organization’s aligned vision and multi-pronged quiver of talent culminated with one of the most dominant campaigns in history. The Avs’ 72 wins in 2021-22 (regular season and postseason combined) tie a league record.
What a ride it’s been since this club bottomed out five years ago, Bednar’s first tour behind an NHL bench. In 2016-17, Colorado finished dead last with a measly 22 wins and 48 points.
Leapfrogged by three teams (New Jersey, Philadelphia and Dallas) with longer odds at the ’17 draft, Sakic scooped up eventual Norris and Conn Smythe winner Makar at fourth overall and didn’t hesitate to stick with the unproven Bednar.
“Well, it’s a belief. It’s a belief in your core. You have to learn. You have to grow. And over time, we kept getting a little bit better,” Sakic explains.
“Our guys, especially this year, really competed and faced a lot of adversity and overcame it every single time. It’s a group that believes in each other — and we believe in them.”
The coach and the core improved together, stuck together. Even after three consecutive second-round losses in the playoffs’ second round, each more heartbreaking than the last.
“The last couple years, I think, has made us a stronger group, a more resilient group, a team that’s been mentally tough for the bulk of the season,” Bednar said. “Raising the bar and our standard of play constantly as the season goes on was probably the biggest thing. We had to focus on what it would take to win come playoff time right from Day One of training camp.”
Makar admitted that in past playoffs, the Avs would get frustrated or lets their minds wander to the next game if they fell behind.
“Even if we won a game, we might take our foot off the gas and start looking a little bit too forward,” Makar admits. “Here, I feel like this team, we’re so set in just taking it shift by shift and trying to do our best in that circumstance that that allows us to play our successful style.”
Bednar began breaking each night into five-minute segments to shrink the focus.
All the small things coalescing to a giant, shiny one. That you can guzzle Coors from.
Bathe your redemption in it, Nazem Kadri.
Engrave your legacy into it, Nathan MacKinnon.
Go ahead. Fill it up and drown all those nightmares of playoffs past into it, Andrew Cogliano, Jack Johnson, and Erik Johnson.
“Exciting game, exciting moment,” Bednar says. “You always hear about controlled emotion. I’m kind of the opposite with our team.
“I want us to use our energy and nervous energy and emotion to go play the game with passion, play hard and stay on our toes and get after it.”
Falling behind early in Game 6 after a Stamkos strike, the Avalanche got after it.
During a delayed second-period penalty call, MacKinnon pounded a one-timer that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy short side, his first goal using his stick blade in the series.
Artturi Lehkonen — a shrewd deadline scoop via Montreal, denied glory a year ago in this same building — supplied the Stanley Cup-clincher off the rush.
Now, we’re certain the entire town of Denver is about to get after it, too.
Fans of speedy, hard, goal-filled hockey should raise a glass as well.
It’s a copycat league, after all, and Colorado Avalanche — speeding into the future, soaking in the present — might just be trendsetters.
“We’re trying to start something special here,” Makar says. “So, you couldn’t write it up any better.”