DENVER – After the Tampa Bay Lightning lost a heartbreaker in overtime on Wednesday to three games in one of the Stanley Cup Finals, the easy money was on the Avalanche to close out the series at home on Friday.
And why not? The Avalanche has been dominant in Denver all season and outscored the Lightning 11-3 in the first two games of the series. Colorado’s speed and swarming style of play were a big reason it rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs, losing only twice.
But the Lightning isn’t the Nashville Predators or the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers. They’re two-time defending champions who haven’t lost a playoff series in more than three years. They have faced every conceivable scenario during that time, including playing in three elimination games, all of which they won.
That number grew to four on Friday when the Lightning shocked the hometown Avalanche, winning 3-2 on a late goal by sending Ondrej Palat back to the best-of-seven series for Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday.
The Avalanche, who shocked the Lightning on Wednesday in Game 4 with a disputed overtime goal, seemed to have all the momentum. Backed by a raucous home crowd eager to see the Avalanche capture their first Stanley Cup in 21 years, the Ball Arena pulsated with anticipation.
But the Avalanche never led in the game. The team was called for several penalties that slowed its momentum and gave the Lightning just enough daylight to hold onto the win.
“When you’ve been down this road,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper after the game, “the mental fortitude you have for not buckle in the environment we just played in, there’s a reason why they have a couple rings. on their fingers. “
Injuries, the salary cap and the stiffer competition all play a part, but so does exhaustion. During the last two seasons, the Lightning played until the end of the hockey calendar while almost every other team was at home recuperating. The 2020 season was particularly stressful because of Covid-related restrictions.
Cooper also acknowledged that his team had lost a stride or two playing in Denver a mile above sea level, especially in Game 2, which the Avalanche won, 7-0.
But the Lightning were different from the team that lost the first two games of the series. Tampa Bay found Colorado penalties during its stride and took a 1-0 lead with five minutes left in the first period, when defenseman Jan Rutta flew down the right side of the ice and fired a booming slap shot under the glove. Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper.
After the second period flat-footed, the Avalanche evened the score in about five minutes. Off a face-off, Colorado’s outstanding defenseman, Cale Makar, ripped a wrist shot from the right circle that Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had stopped in his stomach area, then dropped. That allowed Valeri Nichushkin to sweep the puck into the net for his ninth goal of the playoffs.
After Alex Killorn of the Lightning and JT Compher of the Avalanche received offsetting penalties, Makar was called for tripping over what looked like an incidental play, giving the Lightning a four-on-three advantage. After firing shot after shot at Kuemper, Nikita Kucherov of Lightning scored to put Tampa Bay up, 2-1. The Lightning also thwarted the Avalanche’s speed, which produced several odd-man rushes.
“I don’t even think he was checking that guy,” Jared Bednar, Colorado’s coach, said of the penalty. “They got their only power play goal on that one. So that hurt, stung a little bit but that’s what it is. You’ve got to roll with the punches. “
Desperate to be the host at the Stanley Cup, the Avalanche played aggressively to start the third period. Less than three minutes in, Makar fired a shot from the right circle that Vasilevskiy couldn’t corral. The puck hit the skate of Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak and into the net.
With the score even and the season on the line, the teams played at a frenzied pace. But the Lightning, despite the altitude, the fatigue and the tension, jumped back for good when Palat’s shot trickled through Kemper’s legs for his 11th goal of the playoffs.
“It seems like he likes these big-time moments and he plays extremely well under pressure,” Palat’s linemate, Kucherov, said.
The Avalanche mounted a fierce attack to try to tie the game for a third time. But with 2:43 left, Colorado was called for too many men on the ice – the penalty that wasn’t called in Game 4 just before the Avalanche won in overtime. With the Lightning on the power play, the Avalanche were unable to pull Kemper until under a minute was left.
Despite the win, Tampa Bay still faces long odds to repeat as champions. Only five teams have overcome a two-games-to-none deficit in the Cup Finals, the last being the Boston Bruins in 2011.
Thirty-one teams have overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, most recently in the Rangers opening round of the playoffs this season. But only one team has accomplished the feat in a Stanley Cup Final: The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who overcame a 3-0 deficit and beat the Detroit Red Wings.
More than 30 teams have battled back from a 3-1 to a seventh game, only to lose. New York Rangers fans no doubt remember how the Blue Shirts lost games 5 and 6 in 1994 before finishing off the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7.
“We didn’t have a choice: this was do or die for us,” said Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain. “Sometimes, you get caught looking a little bit ahead. But this group did a great job focusing on the present. “
The present is now Game 6 on Sunday in Tampa.