EDMONTON– The Colorado Avalanche had fought for 21 years to return to the Stanley Cup Finals. The journey had not been easy.
Why should that be different?
Here they were, hugging and shouting and celebrating forward Arturi Lehkonen had apparently scored the series winner after 1:19 of overtime to give the Avalanche a 6-5 win over the Edmonton Oilers in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals at Rogers Place on Monday. All they needed was for the officials to confirm it was a good goal.
“I was hoping it wouldn’t be a high stick,” said Lehkonen.
It was not. The officers pointed to Mitteleis. good aim. And for a team that has endured so much heartbreak and some bad breaks over the last two decades, even if it still had to take a few minutes, it was worth the wait.
When the goal was confirmed, nobody cheered louder than the defender Eric Johnsonthe longest-serving member of the Avalanche, playing for Colorado since 2011. If anyone symbolized what this moment is about, it’s him.
“I’ve waited a long time to get the chance to play for a trophy,” said the 34-year-old. “I saw the puck [go] I was so happy that it went in and we progressed and now we have a chance to fight for the trophy.
“I was excited, so excited.”
He wasn’t alone.
For the past three seasons, the star-studded Avalanche has not progressed past the second round. In 2019, they lost to the San Jose Sharks in seven games. In 2020, they were eliminated by the Dallas Stars in Game 7. Last season ended in a six-game loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.
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All the while, they had to answer questions about why a team with such elite talent as forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanenand defender Kal MakarShe couldn’t get over her hump. They defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round of the Western Conference and advanced to the Conference Finals against the Oilers.
Finally finishing in the NHL’s bottom four seemed to take the pressure off Colorado. Suddenly, the Avalanche have overcome all the odds they have encountered.
defender Samuel Girard is out for the remainder of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a fractured sternum sustained in Game 3 against the Blues. Forward Nazem Kadri was ruled out for the remainder of the series against the Oilers even if it had gone seven games after being hit from behind by a forward Evander Kane in game 3. Starting goalie Darcy Kumper had to leave Game 1 against Edmonton with an upper body injury and was replaced by Pavel Françouzwho made 30 saves on Monday and is now 6-0 this postseason.
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said any team that wins the trophy suffers such pain. That’s one of the reasons, he said, that this team is different from previous ones.
“It’s such a difficult trophy to win,” said Bednar. “It’s a fight of attrition. No one gets through it without suffering a series of ups and downs and ebbs and flows to streaks, injuries and adversity, and it seems like the teams that get through it best are usually the ones that end up standing, or at least get to the final.
“We have taken our share. It’s no different for us in the regular season. But I’m proud of the boys.”
He had every reason to, especially after the resilience Colorado showed in Game 4. Bednar, down by two goals after the second period, delivered a simple message.
“Well, at 3-1 after two there’s no more pressure so we might as well play our game and play loose and get it over with,” said Bednar. “Put everything on the table.”
Video: Lehkonen wins in OT as Colorado conquers path to finals
The Avalanche responded with four of the game’s next five goals to take a 5-4 lead in the closing minutes of the third period. Even at Edmonton forward Zack Kassian Tie with 3:22 left, Colorado never lost confidence.
Lehkonen scored the winning goal with the help of Makar, who continues to wow the hockey world. The 23-year-old had five points (one goal, four assists) and again showed a maturity well beyond his years, leading all skaters with 29:03 ice time.
“Of course that’s a cool performance,” said Makar about reaching the cup final. “You make it onto the biggest hockey stage in the world and it’s exciting. You absorb it for the night and then, for me, you kind of move on and focus on the next step. That’s what made the team successful so far this year, we’re not looking too far ahead, we’re staying in the moment.
“Enjoy this one for a while, then move on to the next.”
Whether that means going up against the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New York Rangers, the teams competing in the Eastern Conference Finals is irrelevant, according to Rantanen. Rangers lead the best-of-7 series 2-1. Game 4 takes place Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS) in Tampa.
“After the first round we also had a week off so it’s nothing new for us,” said Rantanen. “From this series it doesn’t matter at all. Whoever comes, we play. We don’t care at all.”
Only the task counts for them. Four more Stanley Cup wins.