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 spotted two games to the New York Rangers to open the Eastern Conference final. Even in a Game 1 Stanley Cup Final loss to the Colorado Avalanche, they staggered in the face of a first-period barrage, but quickly pulled even before falling in overtime.
They will need another comeback – the most daunting one yet against their most talented opponent yet – if they are to become the first franchise in nearly 40 years to three-peat.
Such is the case after Colorado steamrolled to to 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 in the series.
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“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 roughing 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 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 shots advantage through two periods, holding the Lightning to a fistful of real scoring opportunities and playing like the thoroughly superior group across the board.
“I thought it was exceptional,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said. “I thought our guys played hard right from the drop of the puck. Highly committed on the defensive side of things, dangerously offensively, tenacious on pucks, relentless puck pursuit and that was throughout our entire lineup.”
Nichushkin added another goal and an assist, while Burakovsky carved a goal himself and another helper before leaving the game with an injury after 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 again provided up to the task of beating Tampa Bay’s excellent goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who got little in the way of help from his defense as Colorado dominated offensive zone time and peppered shots toward the net at will.
Even after a blowout loss in front of a frothing crowd in a city longing to return to the top of the hockey world, though, 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 foot 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 carried a 3-2 lead into the third period of a potential put-away game. 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’s regardless of whether 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 remains to be seen, but this hole certainly feels deeper than the past ones for Tampa.
The Avalanche, after all, have 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 outside of one 48-second blip on Wednesday night, has turned in rock solid work in his return from injury.
It has not yet 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 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 have not yet lost away from Denver in the postseason. They staked their claim as the Western Conference’s best team in the regular season and have hardly shown signs of wavering in the playoffs.
“As you go along in the playoffs, even 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 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 a 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’s been tough to kill.
If there is drama left in this series, it will likely have to begin Monday night in Tampa.