Elliott: Thrilling Stanley Cup Final captured essence of season

The sting of defeat was still fresh when Jon Cooper, coach of the recently dethroned Tampa Bay Lightning, arrived for his post-game press conference at the Amalie Arena on Sunday.

He’d just seen the Colorado Avalanche hug, roll around on the ice, and raise their arms in triumph after a 2-1 win that ended the Stanley Cup Finals in six games and ended the Lightning’s two seasons of NHL dominance lifted, and he didn’t like the look from the losing side of the handshake line after the series.

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

That pretty much sums it up.

After 71 postseason games in three seasons, the Lightning just ran out of resilience. That’s no shame. They deserve the ultimate credit for getting as far as they have. If winning the trophy three times in a row was easy, someone would have done it since the New York Islanders won four straight championships starting in 1980. The Islanders’ record of 19 straight wins in playoff series will not be touched in the short-term future. Maybe ever.

The physical demands of playoff hockey and the constraints of the NHL’s strict salary cap make it difficult to win once, let alone 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 introduced in 2005, only the Pittsburgh Penguins had won the championship back-to-back seasons in 2016 and 2017 before the Lightning defeated Dallas in 2020 and Montreal in 2021 in the shadow of COVID-related schedule changes and a divisional realignment.

But as the Flash readily admitted, they were defeated by a superior opponent. Colorado’s quickness wreaked havoc throughout the series, their depth came into play from their own injuries and fatigue, and their special teams played stronger. “It’s not like we lost to a powder puff,” Cooper said. “That’s a ball hockey team over there.”

Colorado’s triumph was also a victory for teams like the Kings and the Ducks, who should give encouragement as the Avalanche emerged from the depths of the NHL to become cup winners for the third time in franchise history. General Manager Joe Sakic’s patience to stay the course paid off for Colorado, who won the Cup in 1996 — their first season in Denver after leaving Quebec City — and again in 2001.

They bottomed out in 2016/17 when they had a league-low 48 points and a terrible minus 112 goal difference. They missed the playoffs for the third straight year and sixth in seven, which is difficult in the NHL. “I didn’t know if I was going to be in Colorado after that,” said veteran defenseman Erik Johnson. “I sat down with Joe and said, ‘Listen, I want to do this. I want to get this done in Colorado. Make me a part of it.” And we did it. Great. So proud of everyone.”

Johnson was the first player to receive the trophy from team captain Gabriel Landeskog. NHL Assistant Commissioner Bill Daly did the honors after Commissioner Gary Bettman tested positive for COVID-19. “Gabe has been telling me for the past few years, ‘If we win, you get it first,'” Johnson said. “If that doesn’t motivate you to do it, then I don’t know what will.”

Great players rarely make great general managers, but Hall of Famer and two-time cup winner Sakic was an exception. Sakic, the first person in NHL history to win a trophy as captain and general manager of the same franchise, rebuilt the Avalanche around drafting and development and recognized the NHL’s trend towards overall speed and increased mobility on defense.

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar controls the puck in Game 6 of Sunday's Stanley Cup Finals.

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, controlling the puck in Game 6, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press)

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

Could Makar lead the Avalanche to a dynasty? “We still have work to do, but the core of this team is going to be around for a while,” said Makar, who led all playoff skaters with an average ice time of 27 minutes and four seconds and amassed 29 points, becoming the first defender since Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers, who was top scorer in a cup winner.

Aside from being lucky in rebuilding the Avalanche, Sakic was smart. To plug holes he couldn’t fill through drafting, he acquired a selection of character and depth players. He signed a trial contract with former King Jack Johnson, and although Johnson didn’t play regularly during the season, he filled 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 post-close additions. Lehkonen, acquired for a defensive perspective and a 2024 second-round draft pick, scored the goal to win the cup on Sunday.

“Beating them is probably a little more satisfying, to be honest, because they’re champions. They know how to win,” Cogliano said of Lightning. “And in the end, if you can beat the champions, you know that you really deserve it.”

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

The league’s first year back on ESPN and its first year on Turner Sports was a success, and if you haven’t heard Charles Barkley talk about hockey, you’re missing out on a good show. The playoffs were dramatic and the cup final was great. The season ended on a good note as a deserving team led by recognizable stars defeated the old champion. Winning is still ecstasy and losing is still shit, and rarely has either been as convincing as in these playoffs.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/hockey/story/2022-06-27/column-nhl-season-stanley-cup-final-colorado-cale-makar-lightning Elliott: Thrilling Stanley Cup Final captured essence of season

Emma Bowman

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