DENVER — The two-time Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning is well-trained in the art of making up for deficits.
They came within 11 minutes of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ elimination in the first round. They spotted two games against the New York Rangers to open the Eastern Conference Finals. Even in a Stanley Cup Finals Game 1 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, they reeled from a first-half barrage but fired quickly before falling into overtime.
They will need another comeback – the most disheartening yet against their most talented opponent yet – if they want to become the first franchise to score three goals in almost 40 years.
That comes after Colorado was subdued to a 7-0 win at Ball Arena on Saturday night that Lightning put on the ropes in the early minutes, brought to the mat midway through the second third and was 2-0 in in the second third Leadership went series.
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“For years we have shown a tendency to push back. We didn’t do it tonight,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “If this becomes a common theme on the show, it’ll probably be a short one, but I never doubt the guys in the room. Does it suck to lose a game like this? Certainly. We’re not used to it. That doesn’t actually happen to us. Will it happen sometimes? Yes, it is. One just hopes it doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup finals.
“We were able to circle the wagons and react. Disappointed with the way the game went today, no question, but I’m not questioning our team. They are ballers.”
Cooper certainly thought Saturday night was going to be a car-circling moment, and said less than two hours before the puck dropped he was confident his team would play “a hell of a lot better” in the first 10 minutes than they did Wednesday night in this building as the Lightning quickly fell 2-0 behind and were trailing 3-1 after the first half.
Instead, veteran defender Ryan McDonagh took a crude penalty after 61 seconds of play and the Avalanche converted towards the end of the power play when Valeri Nichushkin dove in front of the net and conceded a pass from Game 1 overtime hero Andre Burakovsky, who correctly went through three watching Tampa defenders.
“It was all downhill from there,” Cooper said.
Indeed, Colorado dominated every measure, opening a 23-12 shot lead in two thirds, holding the Lightning on to a handful of real scoring chances and playing like the thoroughly superior group across the board.
“I thought it was extraordinary,” said Avs coach Jared Bednar. “I thought our boys played hard from the first moment. Very engaged on defense, dangerous on offense, persistent on the puck, relentless puck chasing throughout our lineup.”
Nichushkin added another goal and an assist, while Burakovsky scored himself and another assist before leaving the game with an injury after just 7:51 of ice time and 1:22 of the first half. Star defender Cale Makar added a manpower goal and a powerplay goal in the third period.
The Avalanche once again proved they were up to the task of beating Tampa Bay’s superb goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had little help from his defense as Colorado dominated offensive zone time and threw shots into the net at will.
But even after a sizzling defeat in front of a seething crowd in a city yearning to return to the top of the hockey world, counting the two-time defending champions is dangerous.
“We no longer expect this (margin of win) to happen,” said Colorado forward Darren Helm. “We have to step on the gas. It’s getting a lot harder to go to Tampa.
Toronto could practically smell a first-round win when, after leading 3-2 in the first round, they scored three straight second-half goals and held a 3-2 lead going into the third half of a potential put-away game wore. Instead, Nikita Kucherov sent the game into overtime and Brayden Point delivered in overtime before Tampa achieved a 2-1 win in Game 7.
Perhaps the Rangers also thought they had Tampa right where they wanted them, scoring nine goals in two opening wins before watching Vasilevskiy find his form and giving up just five more after a strong Lightning response in four games .
“We’re in the playoffs and does it feel different? We lost one of the games 6-2 to Rangers, one 7-0 (tonight),” Cooper said. “These are two completely different teams and two completely different series. The common factor is that we’re 0-2 down on both. We wrote a story, now we just have to write one. For me it doesn’t matter if you win 7-0 or 4-3 in overtime, you still lose the game.”
Whether Colorado will finish the job and win the trophy for the first time since 2001 remains to be seen, but this hole certainly feels deeper for Tampa than the past.
The Avalanche, after all, have speed and skill across their roster. They certainly have top-notch players like Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, but this series has been about players like Nichushkin and Burakovsky who were too much for Tampa’s defense.
“That’s been our team’s story pretty much all year,” Helm said of the lineup-wide contributions.
It was about Helm himself, who hit 22 in two games, won 5 of 7 faceoffs on Saturday and scored on a breakaway.
“He plays to win,” Bednar said simply.
It was about goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper, who, save for a 48-second blip on his return from injury, did a rock solid job on Wednesday night.
It wasn’t yet 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 surgically repaired thumb holds up more intensely on the ice Work.
Regardless of who was on the lineup over the past six weeks and who scored, Colorado’s playoff performance is undeniably dominant at this point. The Avalanche are now 14-2 overall in the postseason, driving a seven-game winning streak to the Gulf Coast. Perhaps even more impressively, they are yet to lose away to Denver in the postseason. They maintained their claim as the top-ranked team in the Western Conference in the regular season and showed little sign of faltering in the playoffs.
“As you go into the playoffs, even in previous series, we’re still adjusting and learning as a group,” Makar said. “It’s a new experience for most guys. So you learn from your mistakes, the things you gave up in previous games, and then move on. We learned from the last game and we wanted to keep that momentum and we did our best to do that.”
Recalling the experience discrepancy between back-to-back champions and his team ahead of Game 1, Bednar replied, “Obviously Tampa, third trip in a row and they’ve been one of the top teams in the league for almost a decade, lots of experience, know how to.” wins, we get it. …
“They may have more experience but we’re here to prove we’re the best team in the league. That is our way of thinking.”
They dominated the early periods of the series. On the other bench is a talented side that was hard to kill.
If there’s any drama left on this series, it probably has to start Monday night in Tampa.