“It was all leading up to this,” playoff MVP-winning defensman Cale Makar said about the Avalanche’s journey.
It’s the first title for this core group led by MacKinnon, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Makar and it follows several early postseason exits — in the second round each of the past three seasons and the first in 2018.
“It feels unbelievable,” MacKinnon said. “Some tough years mixed in there, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”
With a mix of speed, high-end talent and the experiences gained from those defeats, Colorado broke through this time — earning every bit of the championship by knocking off the team that hoisted the Cup the past two years. Like the Avalanche fully expected, it wasn’t easy.
After an early turnover by Makar leading to Steven Stamkos’ goal that put them in a hole and several more bumps and bruises, the Avalanche tied it when MacKinnon beat 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy with a near-perfect shot and went ahead on another big goal by trade deadline acquisition Artturi Lehkonen. They locked things down by holding on to the puck and not letting Tampa Bay even shoot the puck on Darcy Kuemper in the third period.
When they did, he was there. Brought in from Arizona in a trade last summer to shore up the sport’s most important position, Kuemper was solid again and made his most important save with under seven minutes left when he slid over to deny skilled winger Nikita Kucherov.
His teammates finished the job.
“That’s 20-plus years of just dreaming and wanting and working for it and just finally coming to fruition after a lot of crazy years and a lot of hard work,” Landeskog said. “This group is just amazing, all the way from the top to our third massage therapist to the wives to the fans to everybody working in Ball (Arena) right now. It’s incredible.
Much like the Lightning went all in multiple times by trading high draft picks and prospects to load up for the best chance to win the Cup, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic was not afraid to ante up in March to acquire Lehkonen, defenseman Josh Manson and veteran forward Andrew Cogliano. They became the perfect complement to Colorado’s core that had showed plenty of playoff promise and until now hadn’t produced a championship.
Sakic, who captained Colorado’s first two title-winning teams in 1996 and 2001, used a familiar recipe to get his team over the hump. Much like Pierre Lacroix, the architect of those Avalanche teams that had so much success after the organization moved to Denver, Sakic prioritized skill, speed and versatility.
That speed overwhelmed every opponent along the way, from an opening sweep of Nashville through a hard-fought, six-game series against St. Louis, another sweep of Edmonton and then Tampa Bay, which staved off elimination once but ended up two victories short of becoming the NHL’s first three-peat champions since the early 1980s New York Islanders dynasty.
“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty,” Makar said. “We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.”
That legacy finally involves a championship, thanks in large part to steady coach Jared Bednar, who in his sixth season found a way to focus his team on the mission at hand from the start of training camp. That mentality helped the Avalanche get over the hump, and Bednar became the first coach to win the Stanley Cup, American Hockey League’s Calder Cup and ECHL’s Kelly Cup.
Bednar won the chess match with Jon Cooper, also a Stanley and Calder Cup champion who is considered one of the best tacticians in the NHL. But things began to stack up against the Lightning facing their stiffest competition since their run of success began in 2020.
Asked how other teams might be able to copy the Avalanche’s success, Landeskog quipped, “Get a Cale Makar somewhere.”
Makar won the Conn Smythe after leading Colorado in scoring with 29 points in 20 games.
Injuries that sidelined top center Brayden Point and limited other key contributors proved too much against a stacked opponent built to withstand just about anything. Depth allowed the Avalanche to overcome losing defenseman Samuel Girard to a broken sternum and finish off the Lightning without Cup Final Game 1 overtime Andre Burakovsky sidelined by injury and with standout winger Valeri Nichushkin hobbling around on an injured right foot and center Nazem playing through a broken right thumb.
The Avalanche beat the Lightning before attrition could take too much of a toll and before the scary possibility of facing elimination in Game 7. Instead, they’ll return to Denver to celebrate with the Stanley Cup.
While not as emotional as the past two years when Stamkos got the trophy, Colorado’s series-ending victory marks another completion of an NHL season during a pandemic — the first back to 82 games with a normal playoff format since 2019. It was not without its stumbles, including postponing dozens of games and pulling out of the Olympics — and Commissioner Gary Bettman wasn’t even able to hand the Cup to Landeskog because he tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving deputy Bill Daly to do the honors.
The Avalanche and Lightning dealt with at-times rough ice conditions playing late into June, something that should not happen moving forward as the league gets back to its regular schedule. When that happens, Colorado will get the chance to defend its crown and attempt to follow Tampa Bay in sustaining a perennial Cup contender.
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press
Canada ends scoring drought at men’s World Cup but can’t hold off Croatia
Umm Şalāl ‘Alī – Canada wasted little time Sunday ending its scoring drought at the men’s World Cup via Alphonso Davies but could not hold off Croatia, losing 4-1 to end its hopes of reaching the tournament’s knockout round.
Ranked 12th in the world and runner-up to France four years ago in Russia, Croatia is filled with talent from top clubs and its class showed in rallying from an early 1-0 deficit.
Two goals by Andrej Kramaric and one by Marko Livaja accounted for the Croatian comeback. Lovro Majer added a stoppage-time goal in the 94th minute on a two-on-none attack.
The 41st-ranked Canadians started with a bang with a Milan Borjan goal kick finding Cyle Larin at midfield. Larin controlled the ball deftly with his foot and sent it over to Tajon Buchanan down the right flank. Buchanan surged ahead, took two touches, lifted his head and sent in a cross that Davies, soaring through the air high above fullback Josip Juranovic, headed home past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
The Canadians came into the contest — the first-ever meeting between the two countries — needing at least a point to keep alive their hope of advancing out of the group stage with coach John Herdman calling it “one of those do-or-die games.”
Croatia also needed a result after tying Morocco 0-0 in its opener.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2022
Canada beats Australia to claim its first Davis Cup tennis championship
MALAGA, Spain (AP) — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.
A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.
“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.
Canada won the title for the first time on Sunday, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.
Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.
Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.
“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”
Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss Saturday in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court Sunday, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.
Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and on Saturday he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.
This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.
Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.
But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.
Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.
But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.
“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”
But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.
Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.
He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.
“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today — well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”
AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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