DENVER — After the Tampa Bay Lightning lost a heartbreaker in extra time on Wednesday to fall behind three games to at least one within the Stanley Cup Finals, the simple money was on the Colorado Avalanche to shut out the series at home on Friday.
And why not? The Avalanche have been dominant in Denver all season and outscored the Lightning 11-3 in the primary two games of the series. Colorado’s speed and swarming kind of play were a giant reason it rolled through the primary three rounds of the playoffs, losing only twice.
However the Lightning aren’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 greater than three years. They’ve faced every conceivable scenario during that point, including playing in three elimination games, all of which they won.
That number grew to 4 on Friday when the Lightning shocked the hometown Avalanche, winning 3-2 on a late goal by Ondrej Palat to send the best-of-seven series back to Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday.
The Avalanche, who shocked the Lightning on Wednesday in Game 4 on a disputed extra time goal, appeared to have all of the momentum. Backed by a raucous home crowd wanting to see the Avalanche capture their first Stanley Cup in 21 years, the Ball Arena pulsated with anticipation.
However the Avalanche never led in the sport. The team was called for several penalties that slowed its momentum and gave the Lightning simply enough daylight to carry on for the win.
“While you’ve been down this road,” the Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the sport, “the mental fortitude you could have to should not buckle within the environment we just played in, there’s a reason why they’ve a few rings on their fingers.”
Injuries, the salary cap and the stiffer competition all play an element, but so does exhaustion. Throughout the last two seasons, the Lightning played until the tip of the hockey calendar while nearly every other team was at home recuperating. The 2020 season was especially stressful due to Covid-related restrictions.
Cooper also acknowledged that his team had lost a stride or two playing in Denver a mile above sea level, particularly in Game 2, which the Avalanche won, 7-0.
However the Lightning were different from the team that lost the primary two games of the series. Tampa Bay found its stride during early Colorado penalties and took a 1-0 lead with under five minutes left in the primary period, when the defenseman Jan Rutta flew down the suitable side of the ice untouched and fired a booming slap shot under the glove of Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper.
After starting the second period flat-footed, the Avalanche evened the rating about five minutes into the period. Off a face-off, Colorado’s outstanding defenseman, Cale Makar, ripped a wrist shot from the suitable circle that Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had initially stopped in his stomach area, then dropped. That allowed Valeri Nichushkin to comb the puck into the online for his ninth goal of the playoffs.
After Alex Killorn of the Lightning and J.T. Compher of the Avalanche received offsetting penalties, Makar was called for tripping on what looked like an incidental play, giving the Lightning a four-on-three advantage. After firing shot after shot at Kuemper, Nikita Kucherov of the Lightning scored to place 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. In order that hurt, stung somewhat bit however it is what it’s. You’ve got to roll with the punches.”
Eager to hoist the Stanley Cup at home, the Avalanche played aggressively to begin the third period. Lower than three minutes in, Makar fired a shot from the suitable circle that Vasilevskiy couldn’t corral. The puck hit off the skate of Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak and into the online.
With the rating even and the season on the road, the teams played at a frenzied pace. However the Lightning, despite the altitude, the fatigue and the strain, jumped back ahead for good when Palat’s shot trickled through Kemper’s legs for his eleventh goal of the playoffs.
“It looks 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 attempt to tie the sport for a 3rd time. But with 2:43 left, Colorado was called for too many men on the ice — the penalty that was not called in Game 4 just before the Avalanche won in extra time. With the Lightning on the ability play, the Avalanche were unable to tug 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 within 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 the Rangers within the opening round of the playoffs this season. But just one team has achieved the feat in a Stanley Cup Final: The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, who overcame a 3-0 deficit and beat the Detroit Red Wings.
Greater than 30 teams have battled back from a 3-1 to force a seventh game, only to lose. Recent York Rangers fans little question remember how the Blue Shirts lost Games 5 and 6 in 1994 before ending off the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7.
“We didn’t have a selection: This was do or die for us,” said Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain. “Sometimes, you get caught looking ahead somewhat bit. But this group did a fantastic job on specializing in the current.”
The current is now Game 6 on Sunday in Tampa.