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. They watched two games against the New York Rangers to open the Eastern Conference finals. Even in a Game 1 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Colorado Avalanche, they reeled in the face of a first-period barrage, but quickly recovered even before falling in overtime.
They’ll need another comeback — their most daunting yet against their most talented opponent yet — if they want to become the first three-peat franchise in nearly 40 years.
Such is the case after Colorado crushed to a 7-0 victory Saturday night at Ball Arena, putting the Lightning on the ropes in the opening minutes, on the canvas midway through the second period and building a lead 0-2 in the series.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now to receive daily sports headlines
“We have shown a propensity to regress 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 brief, but I never doubt the guys in the room. Does it suck to lose a game like that? Safely. We are not accustomed. It really doesn’t happen to us. Will it happen sometimes? Yes it is. You just hope it doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup Final.
“We have been able to surround the cars and respond. Disappointed with the way the game went tonight, no doubt, but I’m not second-guessing our team. They are dancers.
Cooper certainly thought Saturday night would be a bandwagon moment, saying less than two hours before the puck dropped that he was confident his team would play “much better” during the first 10 minutes than they did on Wednesday night. . in this building, when Rayo quickly fell behind 2-0 and trailed 3-1 after the first half.
Instead, veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh was handed a rough 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 cashed in a pass from the Game 1 overtime hero, Andre Burakovsky, who came out on the right. through three looking Tampa defenders.
“It was all downhill from there,” Cooper said.
In fact, Colorado dominated across the board, opening up a 23-12 shooting lead over two periods, limiting the Lightning to a handful of real scoring opportunities and playing like the completely superior group across the board.
“I thought he was exceptional,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “I thought our guys played hard since the puck dropped. Highly committed on the defensive side of things, dangerous offensively, tenacious with the pucks, relentless pursuit of the puck and that went through our entire lineup.”
Nichushkin added another goal and an assist, while Burakovsky scored a goal himself and another assistant before leaving the game with an injury after just 7:51 of total ice time and 1:22 after the first period. Star defender Cale Makar added a shorthand goal and power play goal in the third period for good measure.
The Avalanche again proved up to the task in beating Tampa Bay’s excellent goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who received little help from his defense as Colorado dominated offensive zone timing and fired shots into the net at will.
Yet even after a crushing loss in front of an enraged crowd in a city yearning to return to the top of the hockey world, it’s dangerous to write off the two-time defending champions.
“We don’t expect that (margin of victory) to happen again,” Colorado forward Darren Helm said. “We have to keep our foot on the gas. It’s going to be a lot harder to go to Tampa.”
Toronto could practically smell a first-round win when, leading a 3-2 first-round series, it scored three straight goals in the second period and carried a 3-2 lead into the third period of a potential elimination game. Instead, Nikita Kucherov sent the game into overtime and Brayden Point delivered in overtime before Tampa earned a 2-1 win in Game 7.
Perhaps the Rangers also thought they had Tampa right where they wanted them, scoring nine goals in a pair of opening wins before seeing Vasilevskiy find his form and surrender just five more in a mighty four-game response from the Lightning.
“We’re in the playoffs and does it feel any different? We lost one of the games 6-2 to the 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 are down 0-2 against both of them. We’ve written one story, now we just have to write another. For me, regardless of whether you win 7-0 or 4-3 after extra time, you still 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 feels deeper than previous ones for Tampa.
The Avalanche, after all, has speed and skill all over the roster. They have top-tier players like Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, for sure, but this series has been about Nichushkin and Burakovsky, who have been too much for the Tampa defense.
“That’s been the story of our team for almost the entire year,” Helm said of the contributions of the entire lineup.
This is Helm himself, who has racked up 22 hits in two games, won 5 of 7 meetings on Saturday and scored a goal in a breakaway.
“He’s playing to win,” Bednar said simply.
It has been about goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper, who came off a 48-second slump on Wednesday night, and has done a solid job on his return from injury.
It still hasn’t been about Nazem Kadri, the talented center without whom the Avs have 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 to increased intensity in the ice. to work.
Regardless of who has been in the lineup and who has scored over the past six weeks, Colorado’s playoff performance at this point is undeniably dominant. The Avalanche are now 14-2 in the postseason overall and riding a seven-game winning streak to the Gulf Coast. Perhaps even more impressive: They haven’t lost outside of Denver in the postseason yet. They staked their claim as the best team in the Western Conference in the regular season and have shown little sign of faltering in the playoffs.
“As you go through the playoffs, even in previous series, we are 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 gave up in previous games, and then you move on. We learned from the last game and we wanted to keep that momentum going, and we did everything we could to do that.”
Recalling the experience discrepancy between the back-to-back champions and their team prior to Game 1, Bednar replied, “Obviously Tampa, third straight trip and they’ve been one of the best teams in the league for the better part of a decade.” , a lot of experience, knowing how to win, we got it. …
“They may have more experience, but we are here to try to prove that we are the best team in the league. That’s where our mindset is.”
They have dominated the early periods of the series. On the other bench is a talented side that has been hard to kill.
If there’s any drama left in this series, it probably will have to start Monday night in Tampa.