DENVER – After Tampa Bay On Wednesday, the Lightning lost to the heartthrob in overtime. trailing three games to one in the Stanley Cup Finals, the easy money was on the Colorado Avalanche to close the series at home on Friday.
And why not? The Avalanche dominated Denver all season and overtook The Lightning is 11-3 in the first two games of the series. Colorado’s speed and aggressive playstyle were the main reason they made it through the first three rounds of the playoffs, losing only twice.
But the Lightning is not the Nashville Predators or the up-and-coming Edmonton Oilers. These are two-time defending champions who have not lost a playoff series in over three years. During that time, they have faced every scenario imaginable, including playing three elimination games, all of which have won.
That number rose to four on Friday as the Lightning rocked the Avalanche hometown, winning 3-2 thanks to a late goal from Ondrej Palat and sending a best-of-seven streak back to Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday.
The avalanche that rocked the Lightning on Wednesday in Game 4 with a controversial overtime goal seemed to have all the momentum. Backed by a raucous home crowd eager to see the Avalanche win their first Stanley Cup in 21 years, the Ball Arena pulsed with anticipation.
But Avalanche has never taken the lead in the game. The team were called up for several penalties which slowed their pace and gave the Lightning enough light to hold on to the win.
“When you went down that path,” Lightning coach John Cooper said after the game, “you have to have the mental toughness not to break in the environment we just played in, there’s a reason they have a pair of rings. on fingers”.
Injuries, salary caps and stiffer competition all play a role, but so does exhaustion. For the past two seasons, the Lightning have played the rest of the hockey calendar while almost every other team has been rebuilding at home. The 2020 season has been particularly busy due to Covid-related restrictions.
Cooper also acknowledged that his team lost a step or two playing Denver at 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 were successful during Colorado’s first penalties and took a 1-0 lead with less than five minutes left in the first period when defenseman Ian Rutta flew down the right side of the court untouched and landed a powerful shot under the Colorado glove . goalkeeper Darcy Kemper.
Starting the second period by surprise, the Avalanche equalized about five minutes into the period. After the throw-in, Colorado standout defenseman Cale Makar pulled off a right circle wrist shot that was first stopped by Lightning goaltender Andrey Vasilevskiy to the stomach and then dropped. This allowed Valery Nichushkin to put the puck into the net and score his ninth goal in the playoffs.
After Lightning’s Alex Killorn and Avalanche’s J.T. Comper received compensatory penalties, Makar was called out for tripping over what looked like a random game, giving the Lightning a four-on-three lead. . After shot after shot at Kemper, the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov scored and put Tampa Bay up 2-1. The Lightning also hampered Avalanche’s speed, causing several odd shots to occur.
“I don’t even think he tested this guy,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of the penalty. “They scored their only powerplay goal. So it hurts, a little bit stung, but that’s what it is. You have to deal with the blows.”
Desperate to win the Stanley Cup at home, the Avalanche started the third period aggressively. Less than three minutes later, Makar struck from the right circle, which Vasilevsky could not catch. The puck bounced off Tampa Bay’s Eric Cernak’s skate and hit the net.
With a tie and a season on the line, the teams played at a frantic pace. But the Lightning, despite height, fatigue, and tension, took the lead forever when Palat’s shot seeped through Kemper’s legs to score his 11th playoff goal.
“He seems to enjoy big moments like this and plays very well under pressure,” said Kucherov, a teammate of Palat.
The Avalanche launched a furious attack to try and level the score for the third time. But with 2:43 left, the Colorados were called out for too many people on the ice, a penalty that wasn’t awarded in Game 4 shortly before the Avalanche won in overtime. With the Lightning on the powerplay, the Avalanche couldn’t get Kemper out until there was less than a minute left.
Despite the win, Tampa Bay still faces a strong chance of a championship repeat. Only five teams have closed a two-game gap in the Cup Finals, the most recent being the Boston Bruins in 2011.
Thirty-one teams closed the gap 3-1 and won the playoff series. Rangers in the first round of the playoffs this season. But only one team accomplished the feat in the Stanley Cup Finals: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, which closed the gap 3-0 to beat the Detroit Red Wings.
More than 30 teams fought 3-1 to make the seventh game but lost. New York Rangers fans will no doubt remember the Blue Shirts losing games 5 and 6 in 1994 before finishing off the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7.
“We had no choice: it was do or die for us,” said Stephen Stamkos, captain of the Lightning. “Sometimes you catch yourself looking a little ahead. But this group did a great job of focusing on the present.”
The present is now Game 6 on Sunday in Tampa.