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By STEPHEN WHYNO
AP Hockey Writer
DENVER (AP) — Nathan MacKinnon wouldn’t have it any other way.
He and the Colorado Avalanche have stubbed their toe many times in the playoffs over the past several years, never getting past the second round. Now that they’ve broken through to reach the Stanley Cup Final, naturally they need to beat the back -to- back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning to win this core group’s first title.
Game 1 is Wednesday night in Denver.
“I’m glad we’re playing Tampa,” MacKinnon said Tuesday. “There’s no Cinderella story or anything: Two of the best teams in the league going at it and really excited for this challenge. And it’s going to be very, very difficult, but I believe this group and we all believe in each other. Hopefully we get this done.”
Colorado is favored, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, but must beat an opponent that has won 11 consecutive playoff series. The Lightning have become the NHL’s gold standard for success in the salary cap era and would join the company of hockey dynasties if they become the first to three-peat since the New York Islanders lifted the Cup four times in a row from 1980-84.
MacKinnon will try to follow the lead of fellow Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia, native Sidney Crosby, who won his first championship in 2009 when Pittsburgh beat defending champion Detroit in the final. The Lightning are the first team since Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers from 1983-85 to reach the final in three consecutive years.
“They’ve been the best for a while now, and we have the opportunity to kind of knock them off the pedestal,” Colorado defenseman Cale Makar said. “We’re trying to start something special here, and they’re trying to continue something that will turn into a dynasty for them. You couldn’t write it up any better.”
This Cup showdown is one Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is surprised did not happen earlier. While he and his teammates have been making long playoff runs, the Avalanche were among the titans of the West and predicted to do the same.
Colorado instead lost in the first round in 2018 and the second each of the past three seasons. Much like Tampa Bay getting swept in the first round in 2019, those defeats have strengthened the Avalanche and prepared them for this challenge.
“Certainly a lot of lessons have been learned over the last five, six years from myself, from our team going through some heartbreak in the playoffs,” coach Jared Bednar said. “Even the last couple years I think has made us a stronger group, a more resilient group.”
The Lightning know all about showing resilience, in previous years and this postseason. They needed to overcome series deficits of 3-2 against Toronto in the first round and then 2-0 to the New York Rangers in the East final to avoid elimination. They even trailed in the third period of Game 7 at the Maple Leafs and came back to win.
“That’s been a big theme of ours is putting our stamp on history, and you can’t do that without winning and being committed and doing all the things and not exhaling,” coach Jon Cooper said. “The guys have done a phenomenal job, especially in the Toronto series when we were down 3-2. When there are no tomorrows, they gave us two more months of tomorrows.”
ALMOST FULL STRENGTH
The Lightning finished their comeback against Toronto — and got through the next two rounds — without first-line center Brayden Point, who injured his right leg earlier in Game 7.
If Point returns for Game 1 as expected after skating well in practice, Tampa Bay would be at full strength against Colorado, which could be without injured forwards Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano and ruled out defenseman Samuel Girard after breaking his sternum in the second round.
“We still got to see,” Point said. “I don’t think anything is guaranteed, but it’s just fun to be out there with the team again and being part of it.
Tampa Bay’s core of Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn is in the final for the fourth time since 2015. The Lightning reached at least the East final six times in that span.
Having been here before and experienced the thrill of winning, Stamkos said he and his teammates consciously talk about not wasting another opportunity to hoist the Cup.
“Our group is too good to not give ourselves a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, and we’ve shown that, especially this year,” he said. “We’ve been down a couple situations. We never panicked. We stick to what makes us successful, and I’m proud of that effort and here we are.”
Colorado has two players who have won the Cup before: Andre Burakovsky with Washington in 2018 and Darren Helm with Detroit in 2008. There are more Cup rings in the front office with general manager Joe Sakic, who captained the Avalanche to the franchise’s first championship in 1996 the year the team relocated from Quebec to Denver and also won it in 2001.
That was the organization’s most recent championship, and now his team is trying to emulate Tampa Bay to bring the Cup back.
“It’s a group that believes in each other, and we believe in them,” Sakic said. “You saw over the years with Tampa. Look at them now, they’re two-time Stanley Cup champions and looking for their third. And we’re looking to dethrone the champs.”