DENVER – The two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning is well-schooled in the art of erasing deficits.
They came within 11 minutes of elimination by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. The New York Rangers open the Eastern Conference Final to two games. Even in a Game 1 Stanley Cup final loss to the Colorado Avalanche, they staggered into the face of a first-period barrage, but quickly pulled away before falling into overtime.
They will need another comeback – the most daunting one yet against their most talented opponent – if they are to become the first franchise in nearly 40 years to three-peat.
Such is the case after Colorado steamrolled to a 7-0 victory Saturday night at Ball Arena, putting the Lightning on the ropes in the opening minutes, on the mat by the middle of the second period and powering to a 2-0 lead. series.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now to get sports headlines delivered daily
“We’ve shown a propensity to push back for years. Tonight we didn’t, “Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “If this becomes a common theme in the series, it will probably be a short one, but I never doubt the guys in the room. Does it suck losing a game like that? For sure. We ‘re not used to it. It doesn’t really happen to us. Is it going to happen at times? Yeah, it is. You just hope it doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup Final.
“We’ve been able to circle the wagons and respond. Disappointed in the way the game went tonight, no question, but I’m not questioning our team. They’re ballers. “
Cooper certainly thought Saturday night would be a circle-the-wagons moment, saying less than two hours before the puck dropped that he was confident his team would play “a heck of a lot better” over the first 10 minutes than it did Wednesday night. In this building, when the Lightning fell behind 2-0 quickly and trailed 3-1 after the first period.
Instead, veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh took a rough penalty 61 seconds into the game and the Avalanche converted near the end of the power play when Valeri Nichushkin didve in front of the net and cashed in a pass from Game 1’s overtime hero Andre Burakovsky that went right. through three on-looking Tampa defenders.
“It was all downhill from there,” Cooper said.
Indeed, Colorado dominated in every facet, opening up a 23-12 shot advantage through two periods, holding the Lightning to a fistful of real scoring opportunities and playing like a thoroughly superior group across the board.
“I thought it was exceptional,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “I thought our guys played hard right off the drop of the puck. Highly committed on the defensive side of things, dangerous offensively, tenacious on the pucks, relentless puck pursuit and that was throughout our entire lineup. “
Nichushkin added another goal and an assist, while Burakovsky tallied a goal himself and another assist before leaving the game with an injury just 7:51 of total ice time and 1:22 after 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 will again prove to be up to the task of beating Tampa Bay’s excellent goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who helped little in the way of defending his defense as Colorado dominated offensive zone time and peppered shots at the net.
Even after a blowout loss in front of a frozen crowd in the city to return to the hockey world, however, it is dangerous to count out the two-time defending champions.
“We’re not expecting that (margin of victory) to happen anymore,” Colorado forward Darren Helm said. “We’ve got to keep our feet on the gas. It’s going to be a lot tougher going into Tampa. “
Toronto could practically smell a first-round victory when, leading a first-round series 3-2, it poured in three consecutive second-period goals and led a potential put-away game in the third period. Instead Nikita Kucherov sent the game to overtime and Brayden Point delivered in overtime before Tampa forged a 2-1, Game 7 win.
Perhaps the Rangers also thought they had Tampa right where they wanted them, scoring nine goals in a pair of opening wins before watching Vasilevskiy find his form and surrender just five more over a powerful, four-game response from the Lightning.
“We’re in the playoffs and does it feel different? We lost one of the games 6-2 to the Rangers, we lost one 7-0 (tonight), “Cooper said.” They’re two completely different teams and two completely different series. The common factor is we’re down 0-2 to both of them. We’ve written one story, now we just have to write another. For me, it doesn’t matter if you win 7-0 or 4-3 in overtime, you still lose the game. “
Whether Colorado finishes the job and raises the Cup for the first time since 2001 has been seen, but this hole certainly feels deeper than the past ones for Tampa.
The Avalanche, after all, has the speed and skill across the roster. They have premier players like Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, certainly, but this series has been about the likes of Nichushkin and Burakovsky, who have been too much for Tampa’s defense to handle.
“That’s been the story of our team pretty much all year,” Helm said of the lineup-wide contributions.
It’s been about Helm himself, who has racked up 22 hits through two games, won 5-of-7 faceoffs on Saturday and scored a goal on a breakaway.
“He’s playing to win,” Bednar said simply.
It’s been about goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who’s out of a 48-second blip on Wednesday night, has turned rock solid work into his return from injury.
It’s not yet been about Nazem Kadri, the talented center without the Avs built a 2-0 lead but who could return to action at some point depending on how his surgically repaired thumb holds up more intense on-ice. work.
Regardless of who’s been in the lineup and who’s done the scoring over the past six-plus weeks, Colorado’s playoff performance at this point is undeniably dominant. The Avalanche are now 14-2 in the postseason overall and ride a seven-game winning streak to the Gulf Coast. Perhaps even more impressive: They haven’t lost yet in Denver in the postseason. They staked their claim as the Western Conference’s best team in the regular season and have rarely shown signs of wavering in the playoffs.
“As you go along in the playoffs, even the previous series, we’re still adapting and learning as a group,” Makar said. “For most of the guys, this is a new experience for them. So you learn from your mistakes, the things you give up in prior games, and then move forward. We learned from the last game and wanted to keep that momentum, and we did our best to do that. “
Reminded of the experience discrepancy between the back-to-back champs and his team before Game 1, Bednar responded, “Obviously Tampa, third straight trip and they’ve been one of the top teams in the league for the better part of the decade. , lots of experience, know how to win, we get it. …
“They may have more experience, but we’re here to try to prove that we’re the best team in the league. That’s where our mindset is at. “
They’ve dominated the series’ first periods. On the other bench is a talented side that has been tough to kill.
If there is a drama left in this series, it will likely begin on Monday night in Tampa.