NHL Hockey

Fastest 5 minutes in hockey: How speedy Avs won Stanley Cup

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

By STEPHEN WHYNO

AP Hockey Writer

Playing hockey on fast forward, the Colorado Avalanche blazed their way to the Stanley Cup championship with a mix of speed and high-end skill that needed only a defined focus to get over the top.

There was never any denying a team featuring Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen has enough talent to win. But after four consecutive early playoff exits, the Avalanche authored a different ending and knocked off the back -to- back defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning by concentrating on something simple: winning each 5-minute burst at a time.

"They never thought ahead - they just prepared every day and just focused on that," general manager Joe 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."

Coach Jared Bednar, in his sixth season behind the bench, is behind that strategy of breaking games down into 5-minute increments. It's a lesson he learned from the playoff disappointments and one that served as Colorado's internal mantra way more than the marketing slogan, "Find a way."

"We have a good five minutes and we're moving on to the next," Bednar said. "It just helps guys stay focused and in the moment and committed to what you're trying to do."

Even before the final against Tampa Bay, Bednar praised his team for buying into that philosophy, and players acknowledged echoing it on the bench during games. The chatter became a soundtrack to the Avalanche cruising through the playoffs with 16 wins in 20 games.

"We want to make sure that every five minutes is a focus: No matter what happens, we're resetting and we're going again because we want to be taking the game to teams," said defenseman Josh Manson, one of Sakic's key trade deadline acquisitions. "We have a lot of speed, and our forecheck is a big part of our game, so we want to be resetting every five minutes to do exactly what we need to do."

Behind all that speed, the Avalanche swept Nashville in the first round, took out St. Louis in six, swept Edmonton in the West final and finished off Tampa Bay in six on Sunday night, handing the Lightning just their second defeat in their last 13 series.

"All four lines can skate," Rantanen said. "That's what we did. Just a team effort. We were working really, really hard. We have a lot of skill, but it takes more than skill to win a championship, and that's exactly what we did."saki

Those watching from outside the final could see the extra hockey taking its toll on Tampa Bay - no team has played more games since 2020, the price that comes with winning two straight titles and playing for a third - and only marvel at Colorado's pace. That includes Bryan Trottier, who won the Stanley Cup six times as a player and again as an Avalanche assistant in 2001.

"Holy cow, they're quick," he said. "Their speed is really incredible."

That was no accident. Sakic, the captain of that title team in 2001 and also in 1996, had a blueprint of how to win and went about finding players who fit. The Avs were not just fast on offense - they were in your face on defense, on the forecheck and along the boards. Opponents had little time to think.

Taking MacKinnon with the first pick in 2013 was about finding what Sakic called a "game-changer." Same with Makar (the fourth pick in 2017), and Sakic along the way added grit in trades for Manson, center Nazem Kadri and depth forward Andrew Cogliano.

But the key to Colorado's game was always speed.

"We're a fast-paced team," Sakic said. "We train at altitude. And for our group, the faster the pace is, we feel we can take advantage of that."

Augmented by the rest players got from finishing two of the first three series in four games, that speed was a significant advantage against the two-time champs, who were built to manage just about everything this time of year but couldn't handle the way Colorado used it.

A 7-0 Avalanche blowout in Game 2 was a perfect example. The Lightning, from 2021 playoff MVP goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to the dependable veteran skaters in front of him, made one uncharacteristic mistake after another because of Colorado's sharp, aggressive skating and playmaking.

"Our skating has to be a factor for us regardless of opponent," Bednar said. "And then playing fast is more than that: It's execution and getting to the right spots and doing the right things so we're predictable to ourselves."

The Avalanche winning the Cup was predictable to four-time Cup-winning Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr. He said Colorado being the better team in the final followed the path that has been set out since October.

"They've been great all year," Fuhr said. "They looked like the best in the West from the start of the year, and they've basically been the best in the league the whole time."

It began in September, when the Avalanche began shaking off their most recent playoff defeat. Bednar said he and his team did some experimenting during the season on the way to earning the top seed in the West.

When it was time to finish the job, Colorado was ready.

"You don't preach it all year long and practice it all year long to throw it away at the most important time of the year," Bednar said. "It's why we started preaching it Day One of training camp: Focus on the process and what we have to pay attention to, to have success."

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Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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Updated June 27, 2022

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