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

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Colorado Avalanche defenseman Jack Johnson lifts the Stanley Cup.
Colorado guard Jack Johnson lifts the Stanley Cup after the Avalanche’s victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on Sunday. (Phelan M. Ebenhak/Associated Press)

The sting of defeat was still fresh when John Cooper, coach of the recently ousted Tampa Bay Lightningarrived at the post-match press conference on Sunday at the Amalia Arena.

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He just watched Colorado Avalanche hugging, rolling on the ice and triumphantly raising their hands after 2-1 win who completed Stanley Cup Final in six games to end the Lightning’s two seasons. NHL dominance, and he didn’t like the look from the losing side of the handshake line after the series.

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

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That’s all.

After 71 postseason games in three seasons, the Lightning simply had no resilience left. There is nothing to be ashamed of. They deserve the greatest respect for having come this far. If it was easy to win the Cup three times in a row, someone would have, since the New York Islanders have won four championships in a row since 1980. – urgent future. Maybe one day.

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

But, as the Lightnings readily admitted, they were defeated by a stronger opponent. Colorado’s speed created havoc throughout the series, their depth played a role due to their own injuries and fatigue, and their special teams’ play was stronger. “We didn’t lose to some down jacket,” Cooper said. There’s a cool hockey team over there.

Colorado’s triumph was also a win for teams like the Kings and Ducks, who should be heartened as the Avalanche rose from the bottom of the NHL standings to become Cup champions for the third time in franchise history. General manager Joe Sakic’s patience in keeping the course paid off for Colorado, who won the Cup in 1996—his first season in Denver since leaving Quebec—and again in 2001.

They hit rock bottom in 2016-17 with 48 points and a terrible minus 112 goal difference. They missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season and sixth of seven, which is tough to do in the NHL. “I didn’t know if I would even end up in Colorado after that,” veteran quarterback Eric Johnson said. “I sat down with Joe and said, ‘Look, I want to do it here. I want to do it in Colorado. Keep me a part of it. And we did it. Marvelous. So proud of everyone.”

Johnson was the first player to be awarded the Cup by team captain Gabriel Landeskog. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly honored after Commissioner Gary Bettman tested positive for COVID-19. “For the last couple of years, Gabe has been telling me, ‘When we win, you will be first,’” Johnson said. “If that doesn’t give you the motivation to do it, I don’t know what does.”

Great players rarely make great general managers, but Hall of Famer and two-time Cup champion Sakic is an exception. Sakic, the first person in NHL history to win the Cup as captain and general manager of the same franchise, rebuilt the Avalanche around drafting and development, acknowledging the NHL’s trend towards overall speed and increased defensive mobility.

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar controls the puck in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals on Sunday.
Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar, who controlled the puck in Game 6, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ MVP. (Phelan M. Ebenhak/Associated Press)

And yes, he was lucky to have three teams blindly beat defenseman Cale Makar in the 2017 draft, because Makar is the cornerstone of the franchise. At 23, he became the youngest defenseman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff player since Bobby Orr won it in 1970 at 22. Makar became the third player to win the Smythe and Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) in the same season, after Orr did it in 1970 and 1972 and Detroit’s Niklas Lidstrom did it in 2002.

Could Makar lead Avalanche to a dynasty? “We still have some work to do, but the backbone 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 4 seconds and scored 29 points to become first quarterback since Brian Leitch of the New York Rangers to lead the Cup champions in scoring.

Aside from his luck in recovering Avalanche, Sakic was smart. To plug the holes he couldn’t fill in the draft, he acquired a lot of character and deep players. He signed the former king Jack Johnson to a trial contract, and although Johnson did not play regularly during the season, he interfered when Samuel Girard was injured in the second round. Former Ducks Andrew Cogliano and Josh Manson and strikers Artturi Lehkonen and Niko Sturm were perfect for the trade on time. Lehkonen, acquired with a defensive prospect and a second-round pick in the 2024 draft, scored the game-winner on Sunday.

“Honestly, beating them is probably a little more satisfying because they are champions. They know how to win,” Cogliano said of the Lightning. “And in the end, when you can beat champions, you know you really deserve it.”

After two seasons interrupted due to COVID, the NHL is back to something close to normal. The tally went up – teams averaging over three goals a game – and Toronto’s Auston Matthews became the first 60-goal scorer since Tampa Bay’s Stamkos scored 60 in 2012. The Maple Leafs dropped out early, which was also normal.

The league’s first year on ESPN and the first year on Turner Sports were successful, and if you haven’t heard Charles Barkley talk about hockey, you’ve missed out on a good show. The playoffs were dramatic and the Cup final was great. The season ended on a good note: a decent team led by recognizable stars defeated the old champion. Winning still sucks, losing still sucks, and rarely have both been as convincing as in these playoffs.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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