Lightning pushes Avalanche to Game 6 of Stanley Cup Final

DENVER — After the Tampa Bay Lightning lost a heartbreaker in overtime on Wednesday to fall behind 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 have dominated Denver all season and outscored the Lightning 11-3 in the first two games of the series. Colorado’s speed and teeming style of play was a big reason it made it through the first three rounds of the playoffs, losing only twice.

But the Lightning are not the Nashville Predators or the Edmonton Oilers. They’re two-time defending champions who haven’t lost a playoff series in over three years. They faced every scenario imaginable during that time, including playing in three playoff games, all of which they won.

That number jumped to four on Friday when the Lightning shocked the hometown Avalanche, winning 3-2 on a late Ondrej Palat goal to send the best-of-seven series back to Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday.

The Avalanche, who shocked the Lightning Wednesday in Game 4 on a contested goal in overtime, 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 was abuzz 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 on for the win.

“When you went down that road,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game, “the mental toughness that you have to have to not give up in the environment that we just played in, there’s a reason for which they have some rings on their fingers.

Injuries, the salary cap and tougher competition all play a role, but so does burnout. For the past two seasons, the Lightning have played until the end of the hockey schedule when almost every other team has been at home recuperating. The 2020 season has been particularly stressful due to Covid restrictions.

Cooper also acknowledged his team lost a stride or two playing 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 their groove on Colorado’s early penalties and took a 1-0 lead with less than five minutes left in the first period, when defenseman Jan Rutta flew over the right side of the ice untouched and fired a resounding slap shot under the glove of Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

After starting the second period off guard, the Avalanche tied the game about five minutes into the period. On a faceoff, excellent Colorado defenseman Cale Makar snatched a wrist shot from the right circle that Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had first stopped in the stomach area and then released. It allowed Valeri Nichushkin to sweep the puck into the net for his ninth goal of the playoffs.

After the Lightning’s Alex Killorn and the Avalanche’s JT Compher received penalty kicks, Makar was called out for tripping on what looked like a by-play, giving the Lightning a four-to-three advantage. After firing shot after shot at Kuemper, the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov scored to put Tampa Bay in the lead, 2-1. The Lightning also countered the speed of the Avalanche, which produced several odd rushes.

“I don’t even think he was controlling this guy,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said of the penalty. “They got their only power play goal on that one. So it hurt, it stung a little but that’s how it is. You have to roll with the punches. »

Desperate to lift the Stanley Cup on home soil, the Avalanche played aggressively to start the third period. Less than three minutes later, Makar fired a shot from the right circle which Vasilevskiy couldn’t catch. The puck hit Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak skate and into the net.

With the score tied and the season on the line, the teams played at a blistering pace. But the Lightning, despite the altitude, fatigue and tension, took the lead back for good when Palat’s shot went through Kemper’s legs for his 11th goal of the playoffs.

“He seems to like those big moments and he plays extremely well under pressure,” Palat’s teammate Kucherov said.

The Avalanche mounted a fierce attack to try to tie the game for the third time. But with 2:43 to go, Colorado was called for too many men on the ice — the penalty that went uncalled in Game 4 just before the Avalanche won in overtime. With the Lightning on the power play, the Avalanche couldn’t fire Kemper with less than a minute remaining.

Despite the win, Tampa Bay still faces long odds to repeat as champions. Only five teams have overcome a two-game deficit in the Cup final, the last being the Boston Bruins in 2011.

Thirty-one teams overcame a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, most recently Rangers in the first 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 defeated the Detroit Red Wings.

Over 30 teams fought back from a 3-1 to force a seventh game, only to lose. New York Rangers fans will no doubt remember losing the blueshirts in Games 5 and 6 in 1994 before eliminating the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7.

“We had no choice: it was do or die for us,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “Sometimes you get caught looking a little ahead. But this group has done a great job of focusing on the present.

The show is now Game 6 Sunday in Tampa.

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