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 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 first two games of the series. Colorado’s speed and swarming style of play were a big reason it rolled through the first three rounds of the playoffs, losing only twice.
But 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 more than three years. They have faced every conceivable scenario during that time, including playing in three elimination games, all of which they won.
That number grew to four 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 overtime goal, seemed to have all the momentum. Backed by a raucous home crowd eager to see the Avalanche capture their first Stanley Cup in 21 years, the Ball Arena pulsated 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’ve been down this road,” the Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after the game, “the mental fortitude you have to have to not buckle in the environment we just played in, there’s a reason why they have a couple of rings on their fingers.”
Injuries, the salary cap and the stiffer competition all play a part, but so does exhaustion. During the last two seasons, the Lightning played until the end of the hockey calendar while nearly every other team was at home recuperating. The 2020 season was especially stressful because of 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.
But the Lightning were different from the team that lost the first 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 first period, when the defenseman Jan Rutta flew down the right 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 score about five minutes into the period. Off a face-off, Colorado’s outstanding defenseman, Cale Makar, ripped a wrist shot from the right circle that Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had initially stopped in his stomach area, then dropped. That allowed Valeri Nichushkin to sweep the puck into the net 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 put 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. So that hurt, stung a little bit but it is what it is. You’ve got to roll with the punches.”
Desperate to hoist the Stanley Cup at home, the Avalanche played aggressively to start the third period. Less than three minutes in, Makar fired a shot from the right circle that Vasilevskiy couldn’t corral. The puck hit off the skate of Tampa Bay’s Erik Cernak and into the net.
With the score even and the season on the line, the teams played at a frenzied pace. But the Lightning, despite the altitude, the fatigue and the tension, jumped back ahead for good when Palat’s shot trickled through Kemper’s legs for his 11th goal of the playoffs.
“It seems 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 try to tie the game for a third 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 overtime. With the Lightning on the power play, the Avalanche were unable to pull 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 in 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 in the opening 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 beat the Detroit Red Wings.
More than 30 teams have battled back from a 3-1 to force a seventh game, only to lose. New York Rangers fans no doubt remember how the Blue Shirts lost Games 5 and 6 in 1994 before finishing off the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7.
“We didn’t have a choice: This was do or die for us,” said Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain. “Sometimes, you get caught looking ahead a little bit. But this group did a great job on focusing on the present.”
The present is now Game 6 on Sunday in Tampa.