Elliott: Thrilling Stanley Cup Final captured the essence of NHL season: Ecstasy and agony

·6 min read
Colorado Avalanche defenseman Jack Johnson lifts the Stanley Cup.
Colorado defenseman Jack Johnson lifts the Stanley Cup after the Avalanche's win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

The sting of defeat was still fresh when Jon Cooper, coach of the recently dethroned Tampa Bay Lightning, arrived at his postgame news conference Sunday at Amalie Arena.

He had just watched the Colorado Avalanche hug, roll around on the ice and raise their arms in triumph after a 2-1 victory that wrapped up the Stanley Cup Final in six games and ended the Lightning’s two seasons of NHL supremacy, and he didn’t like the view from the losing side of the post-series handshake line.

“Winning is ecstasy,” he said. “Losing sucks.”

That about sums it up.

After 71 postseason games over three seasons, the Lightning simply had no resilience left. There’s no shame in that. They deserve the ultimate respect for getting as far as they did. If it were easy to win the Cup three times in a row, someone would have done it since the New York Islanders won four straight championships starting in 1980. The Islanders’ record of 19 consecutive playoff series wins won’t be touched in the short-term future. Maybe ever.

The physical demands of playoff hockey and the restrictions imposed by the NHL’s hard salary cap make it difficult to win once, let alone to repeat. “When the injury report comes out, you’re going to be shocked,” Tampa Bay winger Pat Maroon said Sunday. Since the salary cap was adopted in 2005 only the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017 had won the championship two seasons in a row before the Lightning beat Dallas in 2020 and Montreal in 2021 under the shadow of COVID-related schedule changes and divisional realignment.

But as the Lightning readily acknowledged, they were defeated by a superior opponent. The Avalanche's speed created havoc throughout the series, their depth came into play because of their own injuries and fatigue, and their special teams play was stronger. “It’s not like we lost to some powder-puff,” Cooper said. “That’s a baller hockey team over there.”

Colorado’s triumph also was a victory for teams like the Kings and the Ducks, who should take heart from the Avalanche’s rise from the depths of the NHL standings to becoming Cup champions for the third time in franchise history. General manager Joe Sakic’s patience in staying the course paid off for Colorado, which won the Cup in 1996 — its first season in Denver after leaving Quebec City— and again in 2001.

The Avalanche bottomed out in 2016-17 when they had a league-low 48 points and a ghastly goal differential of minus-112. They missed the playoffs for the third straight season and sixth in seven, difficult to do in the NHL. “I didn't know If I was even going to be in Colorado after that,” veteran defenseman Erik Johnson said. “I sat down with Joe and said, 'Listen, I want to do this here. I want to get this done in Colorado. Keep me a part of it.' And we did it. Amazing. So proud of everyone.”

Johnson was the first player handed the Cup by team captain Gabriel Landeskog. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly did the honors after Commissioner Gary Bettman tested positive for COVID-19. “Gabe was telling me the last couple of years, 'When we win it, you're getting it first,' ” Johnson said. “If that doesn't give you motivation to get it done, I don't know what does.”

Great players rarely become great general managers, but Hall of Famer and two-time Cup champion Sakic has been an exception. Sakic, the first person in NHL history to win a Cup as a captain and general manager of the same franchise, rebuilt the Avalanche around drafting and development, recognizing the NHL’s trend toward overall speed and increased mobility on defense.

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar controls the puck in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday.
Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, controlling the puck in Game 6, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. (Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

And yes, he was lucky that three teams blindly passed on defenseman Cale Makar in the 2017 draft, because Makar is a franchise cornerstone. At 23, he’s the youngest defenseman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs since Bobby Orr won it in 1970 at 22. Makar is the third player to win the Smythe and the Norris Trophy (best defenseman) in the same season, after Orr did it in 1970 and 1972 and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom did it in 2002.

Could Makar lead the Avalanche to a dynasty? “We still have some work to do, but the core of this team is here to stay for a while,” said Makar, who led all playoff skaters with an average ice time of 27 minutes and four seconds and racked up 29 points, becoming the first defenseman since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers to be the scoring leader for a Cup champion.

Besides being fortunate while rebuilding the Avalanche, Sakic was smart. To plug holes he couldn’t fill by drafting he acquired an assortment of character and depth players. He signed former King Jack Johnson to a tryout contract, and although Johnson didn’t play regularly during the season he stepped in when Samuel Girard was injured in the second round. Former Ducks Andrew Cogliano and Josh Manson and forwards Artturi Lehkonen and Nico Sturm were ideal trade-deadline additions. Lehkonen, acquired for a defense prospect and a 2024 second-round draft pick, scored the Cup-winning goal Sunday.

“To beat them is probably a little more satisfying to be honest because they are champions. They know how to win,” Cogliano said of the Lightning. “And, ultimately, when you can beat the champions, you know you really earned it.”

After two COVID-interrupted seasons the NHL returned to something close to normal. Scoring was up — teams averaged more than three goals per game — and Toronto’s Auston Matthews became the first 60-goal scorer since Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos scored 60 in 2012. The Maple Leafs were eliminated early, which also was normal.

The league’s first year back on ESPN and first year on Turner Sports was a success, and if you haven’t heard Charles Barkley talk hockey, you’re missing a good show. The playoffs were dramatic and the Cup Final was splendid. The season ended on a good note, with a deserving team led by recognizable stars taking down the old champion. Winning is still ecstasy and losing still sucks, and rarely have both been so compelling as they were in these playoffs.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.