Avalanche of success: Colorado caps off special season with Stanley Cup

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Five years ago, the Colorado Avalanche were the worst team in the NHL. Sunday night, they lifted the Stanley Cup after one of the most dominant playoff runs in league history. It concluded an incredible turnaround for a team that has suffered seasons of setbacks before its stunning march to the cup.

“It feels unbelievable,” Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon said. “Some tough years mixed in there, but it’s all over now. We never stopped believing.”

Colorado’s core remains very similar from that 48-point finish in 2016-17, the worst season in franchise history. The top line of MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and captain Gabriel Landeskog played through both the highs and the lows.

But under general manager Joe Sakic, the Avalanche displayed incredible patience to keep the heart of their roster intact and expand it.

“As bad as 2016-17 was, we still had budding superstars that were ready to take the next step,” Sakic said. “We just had to build around them.”

And build around them he did — the Avalanche went all in through trades and free agency to acquire key pieces like Nazem Kadri, Devon Toews, Valeri Nichushkin and goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

Colorado also showed faith in the then first-year head coach Jared Bednar, despite many calling for his head. Those critics are silent now.

The years in between weren’t perfect either. Stronger regular season results came, but success in the playoffs did not follow. After three-straight second-round exits, questions arose last offseason, wondering if the Avalanche as they were could ever get over the hump. But Sakic doubled down.

The disastrous season five years ago also allowed the Avalanche to draft an exceptional player with their first round pick — star defenseman Cale Makar.

He blends a strong defensive game with elite vision and speed, boasting an unparalleled ability to create offense from the backend. Makar led Colorado with 29 points in 20 postseason games en route to a playoff-MVP winning performance.

The 23-year-old from Calgary has now won a Stanley Cup, the Calder Memorial Trophy, the Norris Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy. Not only has Makar established himself as the best defenseman in the NHL currently, he seems to be well on his way to becoming one of the all-time greats.

Makar was one just piece of a larger puzzle — the Avalanche combined strong defensive play with solid goaltending, outstanding depth and perhaps the best top line in hockey to execute one of the most commanding seasons for an NHL team ever.

Colorado ran through the Western Conference during the regular season for a first-place 119-point finish, the best in its history.

And the team simply hit another gear in the playoffs. They made the Nashville Predators look like a minor league team in a first round four-game sweep. A six-game second-round victory over the St. Louis Blues never seemed in doubt either. Then, in the conference final against the Edmonton Oilers, the Avalanche completely neutralized the best player in the world in Connor McDavid to achieve another series sweep.

So, when Colorado came face-to-face with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the finals, the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions looking to establish a modern-day dynasty, many had faith that the Avalanche would be the ones to finally topple the Lightning’s reign.

They did just that, using the same formula that worked for them all season long: structure, speed, puck possession and waves of offense. A six-game series victory saw years of struggle finally come to fruition. It was truly a special playoff run.

Perhaps the scariest part for the rest of the NHL is that the Avalanche may just be getting started.

“We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy,” Makar said.

With a young core locked up and in its prime for the next several seasons, sustained success, Stanley Cups and even a dynasty could be on the horizon.

Thank goodness Joe Sakic stayed the course.

Benjamin Coleman is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].