DENVER — The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning are well schooled in the art of erasing deficits.
They came within 11 minutes of elimination by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. They scouted two games against the New York Rangers to open the Eastern Conference Finals. Even in a Game 1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals, they staggered in the face of a first-period playoff, but fired quickly before they even fell in overtime.
They will need another comeback – the most intimidating yet against their most talented opponent yet – if they are to become the franchise’s first triple-rounder in nearly 40 years.
That’s the case after Colorado cruised to a 7-0 victory Saturday night at the Ball Arena, putting the Lightning on the ropes in the opening minutes, on the mat midway through the second period and giving them a 2- 0 in the series.
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“We have shown a tendency to back down for years. Tonight we didn’t,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “If that becomes a common theme on the show, it’ll probably be short, but I never doubt the guys in the room. Does it suck to lose a game like that? For sure. We’re not used to it. “It doesn’t really happen to us. Will it happen sometimes? Yeah it does. You just hope it doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup Finals.”
“We were able to go around the wagons and react. Disappointed with how the game went tonight, no doubt, but I’m not questioning our team. They are ballerinas.
Cooper certainly thought Saturday night would be a cart circle moment, saying less than two hours before the puck dropped he was confident his team would play “much better” in the first 10 minutes than Wednesday night. in this building, when the Lightning fell behind 2-0 early and trailed 3-1 after the first period.
Instead, veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh took a brutal penalty 61 seconds into the game and the Avalanche converted near the end of the power play when Valeri Nichushkin dove in front of the net and took a pass from Game 1 overtime hero Andre Burakovsky, who went to the right. through three looking Tampa defenders.
“It was all downhill from there,” Cooper said.
Indeed, Colorado dominated in every facet, opening up a 23-12 shooting advantage in two periods, limiting the Lightning to a handful of true scoring chances and playing like the vastly superior group on every level.
“I thought it was outstanding,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “I think our guys played hard from the puck drop. Very committed on the defensive side of things, dangerous on offense, tenacious on the pucks, relentless pursuit of the puck and it was all throughout our lineup.
Nichushkin added another goal and an assist, while Burakovsky scored a goal himself and another assist before leaving the game with an injury after just 7:51 of total ice time and 1:22 into the first period. . Star defenseman Cale Makar added a shorthanded goal and a power play goal in the third period for good measure.
The Avalanche once again proved up to the task of beating excellent Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who received little help from his defense as Colorado dominated the time from the offensive zone and fired shots at the net at will.
Even after a blistering loss in front of a seething crowd in a city that aspires to return to the top of the hockey world, it’s dangerous to count the two-time defending champions.
“We don’t expect (the margin of victory) to happen anymore,” Colorado forward Darren Helm said. “We have to keep our foot on the accelerator. It’s going to be a lot harder to go to Tampa.
Toronto could practically smell a first-round victory when, leading a 3-2 first-round series, they scored three straight second-period goals and took a 3-2 lead in the third period of a potential game. Instead, Nikita Kucherov sent the game to overtime and Brayden Point delivered in overtime before Tampa forged a 2-1, Game 7 victory.
Perhaps Rangers also thought they had Tampa right where they wanted it, scoring nine goals in a pair of opening wins before watching Vasilevskiy regain his form and give up just five more on a powerful response from four Lightning games.
“We are in the playoffs and does that feel any different to you? We lost one of the games 6-2 to Rangers, we lost one 7-0 (tonight),” Cooper said. “It’s two completely different teams and two completely different series. The common factor is that we lost 0-2 to both. We have written a story, we just have to write another. For me, it doesn’t matter if you win 7-0 or 4-3 in overtime, you always lose the game.
Whether Colorado finishes the job and lifts the Cup for the first time since 2001 remains to be seen, but this hole certainly looks deeper than previous ones for Tampa.
The Avalanche, after all, have speed and skill in the lineup. They have top players like Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, sure, but this series has been about Nichushkin and Burakovsky, who have been too much for the Tampa defense to handle.
“That’s been our team’s story pretty much all year,” Helm said of roster-wide contributions.
It’s Helm himself, who had 22 hits in two games, won 5 of 7 faceoffs on Saturday and scored a goal on a breakaway.
“He plays to win,” Bednar said simply.
It was goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who, with the exception of a 48-second fumble on Wednesday night, did a solid job returning from injury.
There has yet to be any talk about Nazem Kadri, the talented center without whom the Avs built a 2-0 lead but who could return to action at some point in the series depending on how his thumb surgically repaired resists higher intensities on ice. work.
Regardless of who’s been in the lineup and who’s scored in the past six-plus weeks, Colorado’s playoff performance at this point is undeniably dominant. The Avalanche are now 14-2 in the playoffs and are on a seven-game winning streak on the Gulf Coast. Perhaps even more impressive: they have yet to lose to Denver in the playoffs. They claimed their title as the best team in the Western Conference in the regular season and showed little sign of hesitation in the playoffs.
“As you progress through the playoffs, even past series, we continue to adapt and learn as a group,” Makar said. “For most guys it’s a new experience for them. So you learn from your mistakes, things you gave up on in previous games and then you move on. We learned from the last game and wanted to keep that momentum going, and we have done our best to do so.
Recalling the experience gap between back-to-back champions and his team heading into Game 1, Bednar replied, “Obviously Tampa, third straight trip and they’ve been one of the best teams in the league for a good chunk of the season. decade. , a lot of experience, knowing how to win, we understand. …
“They may have more experience, but we’re here to try to prove that we’re the best team in the league. This is where our mindset lies.
They dominated the early periods of the series. On the other bench is a talented team that has been hard to kill.
If there’s any drama left in this series, it’ll probably have to start Monday night in Tampa.