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In N.H.L. Finals, Avalanche Go From Chaser to Front-Runner


DENVER — Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals was described because the challenger catching as much as the reigning champion. In Game 2, the challenger flew right on past.

The Colorado Avalanche, forecast several years ago by many to quickly ascend the ladder to N.H.L. greatness, are two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup after a 7-0 destruction of the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday in a game that felt like a coming-out party.

The query now: Can Tampa Bay revive itself, because it did within the Eastern Conference finals after the Rangers grabbed a short-lived 2-0 series lead? Or is the hockey world witnessing the transfer of power from a dignified but exhausted champion to a young, dynamic team of the long run? Was Game 2 an aberration or has Colorado arrived with more urgency than anyone had predicted?

“They’re playing at an elite level without delay, give them credit,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “We aren’t.”

The toughest part still lies ahead for Colorado. The subsequent two games, including Game 3 on Monday night, are at sea level in Tampa, Fla., and no team in three seasons has found a solution to knock out the champion up to now. Tampa Bay has won 11 straight playoff series, however the Avalanche have the look of a special creature.

Entering the finals, some Lightning players acknowledged Colorado could be the most effective team they’ve faced on this championship run. But they never intended to suggest the Avalanche were higher. Two games into the series, though, Colorado looks faster, more dangerous, more energizing and much more committed.

“There’s a high-quality line between having respect to your opponent and an excessive amount of respect to your opponent,” Steven Stamkos, the captain of the Lightning, said. “We want to appreciate that we came for a reason. Let’s get back to our game and understand they’ve an unbelievable team over there with great skill at every position. But so can we. So let’s discover what we’re product of after they get back home.”

It’s becoming increasingly clear what Colorado is product of. Led by a world-class playmaker, Nathan MacKinnon, and a transcendent, puck-moving defenseman, Cale Makar, the team also has a sizzling supporting solid. It includes forwards Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, who scored twice in Game 2, plus the defenseman Devon Toews. All of them are younger than 30.

The Lightning, with the second-oldest average age of any team within the N.H.L., have relied on their experience to outplay opponents the last couple of years, but accruing all that have can have taken a toll.

Going deep into the postseason two years in a row, Tampa Bay has played more games than every other team in that span, and any possible fatigue can have been exacerbated by the altitude during Games 1 and a couple of. Denver sits at roughly a mile above sea level, which can have affected the Lightning’s performances. If that’s the case, a return to sea level for Games 3 and 4 could help.

They need it. After Game 1, which went to extra time, the Lightning spoke of getting a greater understanding of how the Avalanche play. Nevertheless it was Colorado that enhanced its advantage with a recent set of achievements.

It became the second team in greater than 100 years to register a shutout within the Stanley Cup finals with a margin of greater than seven goals, after the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Minnesota North Stars, 8-0, within the clinching Game 6 that yr.

Colorado also became the third team to attain seven goals 4 times in a single postseason, joining the Edmonton Oilers, who did it six times in 1984 and five times in 1985, in an era when goals were scored at the next rate than in today’s game.

And with Makar scoring twice in Game 2, the Avalanche’s blue liners have 17 goals (seven by Makar) and 61 points in these playoffs, a record for Colorado defensemen. Makar sniped a short-handed goal and added one other on an influence play, making him the second N.H.L. defenseman to attain on each side of a person advantage in a Stanley Cup finals game. Glen Wesley of the Boston Bruins did it in 1988 against Edmonton.

Colorado has won seven consecutive playoff games, including its sweep of the Oilers within the Western Conference finals, and is 7-0 on the road — a juggernaut reaching peak speed in Game 2 of the finals.

“It was definitely as near an ideal game as you possibly can get from the players,” Avalanche Coach Jared Bednar said.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s normally superb goalie, bore the brunt of the onslaught, allowing more goals than he had ever given up in a postseason game. Most of it was not his fault. Colorado’s wicked pace helped create quite a few premium probabilities, a few of which Vasilevskiy saved with remarkable dexterity.

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

Vasilevskiy has not been replaced in a playoff game since 2018, a streak of 77 games, and Cooper said he didn’t contemplate removing him from Game 2.

“Even when I did, I don’t think he would have come out,” Cooper said. “That’s what a competitor he’s. That’s why he’s the most effective.”

Stamkos said the time had come for all of the Lightning players to “man up,” and Victor Hedman, a veteran defenseman, said the team would figure it out at home. But what confounded Cooper was the absence of pushback against a team that was zooming past his.

Although the Avalanche are far different from the Rangers, Cooper said, the Lightning can draw on their experience against Latest York of abruptly reversing course at home.

“We’ve written one story,” Cooper said. “Now we just have to write down one other.”

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