EDMONTON, Alberta — Wearing a smile nearly as big as when he handed the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque in 2001, Joe Sakic emerged from the Colorado locker room after Avs’ 6-5 victory against Edmonton. “It’s fun. But we’re not done,” Sakic told me Monday. “We need four more wins.”
With yet another come-from-behind victory in the NHL playoffs, the Avalanche beat Edmonton in overtime and returned to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 21 years when Sakic and Patrick Roy were kings of the hockey universe.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said 34-year-old defenseman Erik Johnson, the longest tenured member of the Avs, who remembers when this team was at the bottom of the NHL standings. “We’ve been waiting for a long time for a chance to do this.”
But now these Avs are here, 12 victories down, four more W’s away from the franchise’s first championship since the iconic moment when Sakic handed the Cup to Bourque at the turn of this century.
For the eighth time this postseason, Colorado refused to lose after trailing in a game.
The goal that swept away Edmonton from the Western Conference Finals, with suspended forward Evander Kane helplessly watching from the upper reaches of Rogers Place, was scored when Artturi Lehkonen grabbed a rebound from a high shot by teammate Cale Makar with his stick and rammed the puck into the back of the net only 79 seconds into overtime.
Lehkonen was a key pickup at the trade deadline by Sakic, whose moves for veterans Andrew Cogliano and Josh Manson gave the Avalanche a stronger competitive edge when the going got tough.
“It’s tough, a hard trophy to win,” said Colorado coach Jared Bednar, who noted the teams that refuse to quit in the face of adversity “are usually the ones standing at the end.”
The road to the Stanley Cup is wicked twisted, eh?
“You’ve got to trip on the finish line sometimes… before you cross it,” said Avs captain Gabe Landeskog, who had endured the agony of early elimination in the playoffs by this talented team from 2019-21.
More than seven minutes into the second period, Colorado held a 1-0 lead by playing the boring and gross hockey a sweet-skating team has fondly embraced in these playoffs. The Avs were so close to eliminating Edmonton that the Cup seemed tantalizingly in reach for the franchise for the first time since 2001.
And then? Championship dreams were rudely deferred.
Oilers winger Zach Hyman, off a sweet pass from obviously hurting teammate Leon Draisaitl, scored on Edmonton’s first shot of the period at 7:39. The shot seemed to poke a hole in the newfound invincibility of Avalanche backup goalie Pavel Francouz.
With the Colorado defense falling apart in front of him, including a costly turnover by Devon Toews, the Oilers would shell Francouz with two more goals in the second period to take a 3-1 lead into the final frame of regulation.
Goodbye boring. Hello hypertension.
The third period was a goalapalooza. Francouz and Edmonton counterpart Mike Smith were drenched in the cold sweat of a dunk tank that enveloped them with six goals. The Avs poured it on, and when Mikko Rantanen eradicated what had been a two-goal Oilers lead with 5:13 remaining to put Colorado ahead 5-4, the arena was filled with a sense of doom.
But no lead is absolutely safe with the pedestrian goalies on Joe Sakic’s roster. Zack Kassian beat Francouz, kept the Oilers alive and sent Game 4 to overtime with a score at 16:38 of the third period.
“The job’s not finished,” Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon said. “But we’ve got to enjoy the journey.”
There’s no more talented team in the league than Colorado. But the same could have been said of the Avs in years past. The difference this time? “More mentally tough and resilient than we have been in the past,” Bednar said.
Here’s a toast to Bednar for guiding the Avalanche through injuries in the postseason that have taken goalie Darcy Kuemper, defenseman Sam Girard and center Nazem Kadri out of the lineup. I challenged him during the series against St. Louis to be more than a Ken doll on the bench. Bednar laughed it off.
What pleases him most is the growth of this Avalanche. “It would be easy to show emotion, get frustrated,” said Bednar, who tries to set the tone by refusing to get rattled by anything and “turn the page.”
Come on, Barbie. Let’s go party. The Avs haven’t been this close to hoisting the Cup since 2001.