Saturday's NHL: Game 6 road test stands between Avalanche, Stanley Cup

Stephen Whyno
Associated Press
Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) skates against the Lightning in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals in Denver.

Tampa, Fla. — Josh Manson still had his bags half-packed from the Colorado Avalanche’s last time on the road, when they returned home with the chance to win the Stanley Cup.

That didn’t happen, and now he and his teammates are confronted with Game 6 Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the arena they hoisted the Cup a year ago to become back-to-back champions.

Trying to win their first championship as a group and the organization’s first since 2001, the Avalanche know the immense challenge they have in front of them against a desperate opponent that has more experience this deep into the playoffs.

“You have to have that desperation because it’s the finals,” Manson said Saturday in Denver before flying to Tampa. “You can’t look at the amount of games that we have left. You have to be desperate every single game.”

Avalanche center Nathan McKinnon (29) skates against the Lightning in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Denver.

Colorado would desperately like to avoid a second consecutive loss that sets up Game 7 back home Tuesday and Tampa Bay being one victory away from a three-peat. And it even has a recipe for handling this situation against a more seasoned playoff opponent.

That came in the second round when the Avalanche went up 3-1 in the second round against rival St. Louis – the last team to win the Cup before the Lightning’s run began in 2020. Much like Friday night, they lost a one-goal game at home to the Blues before bouncing back to close out the series on the road in St. Louis.

Manson said the Avalanche learned some desperation from that sequence, but the stakes are higher in the final with the Stanley Cup in the building.

“I know how much our guys want it now: They’ve worked for it,” coach Jared Bednar said. “There’s a certain amount of stress and anxiety that you have to try to put out of your head so you can bring your best performance.”

The Lightning know all about those mental gymnastics, including some new tricks they’ve picked up this postseason. The Eastern Conference final was the first time they trailed a series since getting swept in the first round in 2019 – the defeat that set the course for this run – and had not fallen behind 3-1 until now.

Having already staved off elimination once, and armed with the experience of winning 11 consecutive series, coach Jon Cooper and his team know exactly what to expect from each side in Game 6.

“There’s no doubt we’re better equipped in these situations because you kind of feel (like) you put yourself in the shoes of the other teams, too, and what they must be thinking, what you’re thinking when you’re in these situations and how games played out,” Cooper said. “It’s experience. … And experience matters.”

Freshest for the Avalanche is the painful experience of blowing the chance to join the Lightning as the only teams over the past seven years to win the Cup at home. But previous playoff disappointments have steeled this core group to handle adversity, and in the immediate aftermath of their 3-2 loss in Game 5, leaders were already putting it in the rearview mirror.

“We’ll bounce right back,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said, pointing to the importance of having a short memory in the playoffs. “It’s a seven-game series. It’s not supposed to be easy, and it’s not going to be.”

Star center Nathan MacKinnon echoed that sentiment before the final started. He was glad the Lightning stood in Colorado’s way of winning the Cup because it was a fitting test of a champion.

There’s no bigger test than needing to cap it off on the road in Tampa.

One source of confidence for the Avalanche is their road success this postseason: 8-1, including a win and a loss at the Lightning. They can also look at Tampa Bay the past two years, St. Louis in 2019 and other previous champions who missed their first opportunity to close out the final and then shut the door and raised the Cup the next time out.

“We have belief in our room that we can win every game that we go out and play,” defenseman Devon Toews said. “Especially being the back-to-back champs, we know it’s going to take our best game in order to close this one out.”

NHL experiencing sustained growth with female, younger fans

One of the biggest stories in the NHL this season has been the increase in viewers in the league’s first year of its television contracts with ESPN and TNT. The league is also seeing unparalleled growth in female and younger fans that should have a big impact for years to come.

According to NHL research, 37% of hockey fans are female, including an eye-popping 26% growth in that demographic since 2016. Most of those new fans are likely within the coveted 18-49 age demographic, too, since nearly 40% of all NHL fans are under 50.

Kali Mick – an Avalanche fan who lives in Colorado and is part of the league’s Power Players youth advisory board – said the recent growth comes as the league has showcased more of the human side of the game.

“We’re seeing more player interviews, family moments and those heartfelt things that happen off the ice, as well as this mix of the great highlights that we’re also seeing.,” she said. “That’s been really great to help get more people in the game because people who don’t know the sport will connect more with the human moments. And then the highlights will keep their attention.”

The increase among female viewers was higher during Wednesday night games on TNT. During the regular season, there was a 44% jump in female viewers compared to previous years, when the games were aired on NBCSN.

“Not only do we want to give our avid fans the content that they love, but how can we share it with casual and new fans and make sure that they feel welcome,” said Heidi Browning, the NHL’s senior executive vice president and top marketing officer.

The effort to grow connections has include social media. The league formed a content partnership with TikTok while the agreement with Turner led to Bleacher Report expanding its coverage and the B/R Open Ice vertical. Bleacher Report’s hockey site posted its most viewed month (35.8 million page views) in May and saw engagement triple compared to last year.

Browning is also pleased with the NHL’s share of young fans. League research found that 80% of the users on its digital channels are Gen Z and millennial. The Power Players board, created in 2019, seeks the opinions of fans and social influencers ages 13-17.

Aidan Gunn, who is also part of the board, pointed to the changes in marketing for the growth.

“They’ve taken a less professional approach to their marketing. And I mean that in the best way possible. It’s so much more personal,” he said. “I truly believe that social media is basically an elevator pitch, you have two seconds to capture somebody’s attention. And I think (in) the NHL that’s entirely reflected in their marketing strategy recently. They’ve done so much better with sprucing up all of their content.”

Mick said of the things she has noticed from the board’s recommendations is more activity on TikTok showing things like the players walking into the arena, in the same way the pregame fashion choices have increased traffic on NBA and NFL sites.

The growth in younger fans should also lead to increased revenue in future seasons. Commissioner Gary Bettman said revenue should be in excess of $5.2 billion for this year. While the off-ice stories have helped, Bettman continues to stress it is also about the product on the ice.

“The growth and interest starts with the game,” said Bettman before the start of the Stanley Cup Final.

The NHL’s efforts got a bonus Friday night as the final was pushed to Game 6 on Sunday night, where Tampa Bay will host Colorado and try to force a deciding Game 7 in its three-peat championship bid.