TAMPA, Fla. — Four losses. For most teams, that’s usually what it takes to make dreams of winning the Stanley Cup disappear. But for the 2021-2022 Colorado Avalanche, four defeats don’t represent heartbreak. Instead, they illustrate their dominance.
On the two-month journey that ended Sunday night with Jared Bednar’s Avalanche defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games to raise the Stanley Cup, Colorado only found itself on the losing end of four playoff games. Since the NHL expanded its postseason format to four best-of-seven rounds in 1987, only five other teams have lost four games or fewer en route to winning the Cup.
There is no question that this Avs team was great. It’s a requirement to win the Stanley Cup, which is often called the hardest trophy to capture in sports. But perhaps the most stunning element of this Colorado run is the fact that the one area the Avalanche weren’t elite is typically considered the most crucial ingredient to hoist the chalice — goaltending.
When the Avs acquired Darcy Kuemper last summer, they hoped he could replace (and potentially be an upgrade over) Philipp Grubauer, who joined the Seattle Kraken in free agency. Kuemper had a strong regular season with Colorado, but he was pedestrian at best during the playoffs, posting a .902 save percentage over 16 games — the lowest mark for a Cup-winning starting goaltender in 45 years. It didn’t matter. (And luckily for Kuemper, save percentage isn’t etched on the Cup, just your name.)
Even when Kuemper went down with an injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference final against the Edmonton Oilers, the Avalanche barely missed a beat. With backup Pavel Francouz in net for the remainder of that series, they swept the Oilers in four games.
In today’s NHL, it’s rare to see a team win the Cup without elite goaltending throughout the playoffs. The fact that Colorado was not only able to win without it, but was able to deliver a historically dominant run despite below-average goaltending, speaks to just how special and deep this team was. And the fact that the Avs did it while missing two important pieces (Nazem Kadri and Samuel Girard) for a large chunk of the postseason? Even more impressive.
Stanley Cup Final: Avalanche take the title with 2-1 win over Lightning
This Colorado team will likely be remembered for its speed and high-end, electric offensive pieces — Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar are two generational talents that had their fingerprints all over this title run — but the DNA of a Stanley Cup champion always includes depth contributions and an ability to adjust to the game in front of you. The Avs excelled in those areas as well.
They got significant contributions up and down the lineup, from players young and old, tenured and new. Colorado’s front office deserves a lot of credit for its patience. The foundation of this team has remained in place for years despite a few horrific seasons (including a league-worst 48-point campaign in 2016-17) in order to commit to a long-term vision. The Avs didn’t panic after failing to get out of the second round in each of the prior three postseasons. Sometimes you can learn more from losing than you can from winning, and Colorado’s leadership maintained its belief that the adversity would eventually serve this core well.
General manager Joe Sakic and the Avalanche scouting department also deserves a lot of credit for identifying the ancillary pieces that would help put the Avalanche over the top.
Kadri was essentially considered a liability after taking himself out of two straight playoff runs with the Toronto Maple Leafs thanks to suspensions for bad hits, but Colorado saw what he could be as a top-six catalyst behind MacKinnon. Val Nichuskin, who was bought out by the Dallas Stars after failing to score a goal through 57 games in 2019, scored nine times during the playoffs (including four goals during the Cup Final) and was an integral, versatile two-way menace. Midseason acquisitions of Artturi Lehkonen, Josh Manson and Andrew Cogliano paid strong dividends down the stretch, too.
Nobody really cares about the cost of acquisition when the season ends in a Cup being hoisted, and Sakic showed conviction in his belief that those guys would help make his team harder to play against when it mattered most. He was right.
Heading into this Stanley Cup Final, there was plenty of talk about new versus old. The Avalanche, in their first Cup Final appearance in over 20 years, had the tall task of taking down the Lightning, the back-to-back champions and immortal beasts of the East. While Tampa Bay was trying to extend its dynasty, Colorado was simply trying to establish a legacy.
Well, mission accomplished. And the Avs only suffered four losses despite having to overcome key injuries, subpar goaltending and a more seasoned, accomplished opponent at the finish line. That’s one hell of a way to cement a legacy.