TAMPA, Fla. -- The night before the Colorado Avalanche won their first Stanley Cup in over two decades by defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1 in Game 6 on Sunday, they called a players-only meeting.
Colorado could have clinched the Cup on home ice in Game 5. Instead, Tampa Bay extended the series with a 3-2 win. The Avalanche's leadership group had been through too much heartbreak before, making three consecutive second-round series exits prior to this season. No way would they let another opportunity slip.
"We knew the job that we had to do," said Cale Makar, who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason's most valuable player. "But we needed to just talk about staying mentally locked in and not looking too far ahead. It was [Andrew Cogliano] and [Gabriel Landeskog] and [Nathan MacKinnon] speaking and basically just calming the guys down and making sure that regardless of the outcome, just put it all out there and see where the game lies, and that's kind of where our minds were at.
"I felt like throughout this whole game, our mentality was just win that period and win the next one, get the next shift and so on, and we were never looking too far ahead to the to the outcome -- and we definitely feel like we earned that one."
Makar finished the postseason third overall in scoring with eight goals and 29 points in 20 games. The 23-year-old also won the Norris Trophy last week, making him the third defenseman to win both the Norris and Conn Smythe in the same season. Makar was the first unanimous Conn Smythe winner since the Professional Hockey Writers Association began tracking tabulations five years ago.
It wasn't the individual accomplishments Makar was most proud of, however. It was the whole team effort. He said before the Cup Final began that while the two-time Cup champion Lightning were trying to build a dynasty, Colorado was attempting to forge a legacy.
That journey began in earnest for the Avalanche with the franchise's first Cup victory since 2001. In what was a tightly contested Game 6 until the end, Makar worked not to let his emotions take over.
"I was trying not to look at the clock too much, was just trying to stay in the moment," Makar said. "When we had them at the line a couple times, I saw the puck go down and I was like, 'I don't want this thing to come out at the corner,' so I had to do everything I could to keep it there. Pure joy being able to throw the gloves off and being able to experience that again. It's so amazing to be able to experience it with such a great group of guys, so it's awesome."
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar had a gut instinct about Sunday's game. He was not part of the meeting that took place but "got the gist" of what was said. That the players took it upon themselves to gather after the Game 5 loss told Bednar everything he needed to know about where his team stood.
"I had a pretty good feeling about tonight because they called that meeting and those guys said what they said," Bednar said. "I was really impressed that our guys [did that] to try to get over [Game 5] mentally and discuss what was going on at home and turn the page and get ready. After that meeting, you could just kind of feel a sense of relief, some of the nervous tension that we had at home [was gone] and the focus was back."
Still, the Avalanche stumbled out of the gate in Game 6.
Steven Stamkos scored his 11th goal of the postseason to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead through 20 minutes. The Avalanche's pushback came in the second period. MacKinnon had been waiting for a breakout moment in this series and finally found it, tallying the equalizer with a one-timer from the left circle past Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Colorado wouldn't trail again. Artturi Lehkonen scored his game winner in the second period, and the Avalanche held on from there to deny Tampa Bay its three-peat chance.
Landeskog said he thought Colorado's third period was as good as it could have been, showcasing all the key points the team touched on in its meeting.
"We said, 'We've been quick learners all season, we've been quick learners in the playoffs,'" Landeskog recalled. "We kind of blew it, we didn't out have our best showing in Game 5, but come back here tonight, and we just wanted to be aggressive."
For MacKinnon, the road to becoming a Cup champion with Colorado was particularly painful. He is part of the core that endured a last-place finish in 2016-17, a brutal low point that he, Landeskog, Erik Johnson and Mikko Rantanen, specifically, didn't know if they'd overcome.
Now their names will be etched on hockey's holy grail forever.
"It's hard to describe, honestly," MacKinnon said. "We came from last place together, me, Landy, Mikko, EJ, so it's unbelievable. I'm forever grateful to go through it with these warriors. It was a perfect mix. And we needed a lot of character building over the years to get this done, so it feels great."
"That 2016-17 season was rock bottom from an NHL perspective," he said. "It just shows that management was patient with Jared, they were patient with us. They didn't blow things up after a second-round exit for the third year in a row. They believed in us. They added high-character pieces who wanted to do anything they could to get this win. It's special."
As captain, Landeskog was first to hoist the Cup after being presented it by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who assumed that duty as well as the traditional end-of-season speech with commissioner Gary Bettman sidelined by the coronavirus. Landeskog passed the Cup directly to Johnson. Landeskog and Johnson are the Avalanche's longest-tenured players. Just like then-captain (and current Avs general manager) Joe Sakic knew in 2001 he'd hand the Cup off to Ray Bourque, Landeskog had only one teammate in mind for that instance.
"Gabe was telling me the last couple years, 'When we win it, you're getting it first,'" Johnson said. "If that doesn't give you motivation to get it done, nothing else does. Just a super humbling, gratifying feeling, it's amazing. [It's] heavier than you think. It was like watching a video game or something like that. It was amazing."
Colorado's Cup win was the culmination of a dominant postseason run, during which the Avalanche went 16-4 overall and swept both their first-round series against Nashville and the Western Conference finals against Edmonton. It fit a theme for the Avalanche, as well, to win their Cup on the road. Colorado was terrific on the road all playoffs, finishing with a 9-1 mark and completing all four of its series wins away from home.
The Avalanche also got the job done amid injuries to key players.
Andre Burakovsky had been playing through a broken foot suffered in the conference finals and was sidelined for most of the Cup Final after breaking his thumb in Game 2. Nazem Kadri played through a broken thumb. Cogliano had a broken hand. Valeri Nichushkin was battling a painful lower body injury from Game 5.
Resiliency is what carried Colorado to this point, going back to the 2016-17 campaign that became a foundation upon which the Avalanche could build their brighter future. Sakic was the architect of Colorado's success, but it was the players' refusal to give up on the eventual dream of being Cup champions that carried them through to the ultimate prize.
"I'm really happy for those guys [who stuck around]," Sakic said. "This group, it was a great group. They believed in each other all year and really stuck together and never let anything faze them, really. If they had a bad game, they got right up the next day ready to be better."