In the NHL Finals, Avalanche went from being a stalker to a leader

DENVER. The first game of the Stanley Cup Finals has been described as a challenger’s struggle with the reigning champion. In the second game, the challenger flew by.

The Colorado Avalanche, predicted years ago to quickly climb the ladder to NHL greatness, is two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup after a 7-0 thrashing of the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday which was like a weekend party.

Now the question is: can Tampa Bay resurrect, as they did in the Eastern Conference Finals after the Rangers briefly took a 2-0 lead? Or has the hockey world witnessed a shift in power from a worthy but jaded champion to a young, dynamic team of the future? Was Game 2 an aberration, or did Colorado arrive with more urgency than anyone predicted?

“They’re playing at an elite level now, give them credit,” Lightning coach John Cooper said. “We are not.”

The hardest part for Colorado is yet to come. The next two games, including Game 3 on Monday night, are played at sea level in Tampa, Florida, and no team in three seasons has yet found a way to knock out the champion. Tampa Bay has won 11 consecutive playoff series, but the Avalanche look very different.

By reaching the Finals, some Lightning players acknowledged that Colorado would be the best team they faced in this championship. But they never assumed the Avalanche was better. However, the two games in the Colorado series look faster, more dangerous, fresher, and even more purposeful.

“There is a fine line between respecting an opponent and respecting them too much,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos. “We need to understand that we got here for a reason. Let’s go back to our game and realize that they have an incredible team with great skill in every position. But so are we. So let’s find out what we’re made of when they get home.”

It’s getting clearer what Colorado is made of. Led by world class playmaker Nathan McKinnon and transcendent, defenseman with the puck, Cale Makar, the team also has a sizzling supporting cast. It included strikers Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Valery Nichushkin, who scored twice in the second game, as well as defender Devon Toews. All of them are under 30 years old.

The Lightning, the second-best team in the NHL in terms of average age, have relied on their experience for the last couple of years to beat their opponents, but accumulating all that experience could take a toll.

Deepening into the postseason two years in a row, Tampa Bay played more games than any other team in that period, and any possible fatigue could have been exacerbated by the altitude during Games 1 and 2. Denver is about a mile above sea level. level, which could affect the performance of Lightning. If so, returning to sea level for games 3 and 4 might help.

They need it. After the first game, which went into overtime, the Lightning talked about having a better understanding of how the Avalanche played. But it was Colorado who strengthened their advantage with a new set of achievements.

It became the second team in over 100 years to record a Stanley Cup Finals shutout by more than seven goals, after the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Minnesota North Stars 8–0 in the Game 6 decider. this year.

Colorado also became the third team to score seven goals four times in a single postseason, joining the Edmonton Oilers who scored six times in 1984 and five times in 1985, in an era when more goals were scored than today’s game.

And with Makar scoring twice in Game 2, the Avalanche blueliners scored 17 goals (Makar’s seven) and scored 61 points in those playoffs, a record for a Colorado defenseman. Makar scored a shorthanded goal and added another on the powerplay, making him only the second NHL defenseman to score on both sides in a Stanley Cup final game. Glen Wesley of the Boston Bruins did it in 1988 against Edmonton.

Colorado has won seven consecutive playoff games, including defeating the Oilers in the Western Conference Finals, and is leading 7-0 on the road, a juggernaut that peaked in Game 2 of the Finals.

“It was by far the closest thing to a perfect game that you can get from the players,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, usually an excellent goaltender for Tampa Bay, took the brunt of the attack, conceding more goals than ever in the playoffs. Much of this was not his fault. The incredible speed of the Colorado helped create many bonus chances, some of which Vasilevsky converted with amazing dexterity.

“We hung it out to dry,” Stamkos said. “We owe it to him to have a better game next game.”

Vasilevsky hasn’t changed in playoff games since the 2018 77-game streak, and Cooper said he’s not considering removing him from Game 2.

“Even if I did, I don’t think he would have come out,” Cooper said. “Here is a competitor. That’s why he’s the best.”

Stamkos said it was time for all the Lightning players to “ripen up” and Victor Hedman, a seasoned defender, said the team would sort it out at home. But what confused Cooper was the lack of opposition to the team that swept past him.

Although the Avalanche are very different from the Rangers, Cooper said, the Lightning can use their experience against New York by sharply changing course at home.

“We wrote one story,” Cooper said. “Now we just have to write another one.”