Lightning Find Themselves in Familiar Position vs. Avs, But This Feels Different

Abbey MastraccoJune 19, 2022

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 18: Colorado Avalanche celebrates after a goal is scored on Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period in Game Two of the 2022 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Ball Arena on June 18, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

DENVER — Jon Cooper talked about how important it is for a team to execute a game plan Saturday afternoon and his role once the game begins.

"The coaches' job is to put the game plan together. It's the players' job to go execute it, and they're the ones that are in the trenches," Cooper said ahead of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. "I always make the joke I just stand there, and I watch these players go perform. But you have to have a group that's going to do it, willing to commit to doing the things that need to be done."

His group didn't do it. But Jared Bednar's did.

"I don't know about the perfect plan, but it certainly was as close to perfect as a game you can get from your players," the Colorado Avalanche coach said.

After Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, some fans were expecting a seven-game series. The Colorado Avalanche blew a lead while the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions reminded everyone of their ability to make a push within the game.

But that ability was suddenly lost in Game 2 on Saturday night at Ball Arena. The Bolts had no answer for the Avs in a 7-0 rout, and they now leave Colorado down 2-0 in the series.

Tampa Bay was down 2-0 to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final but went on to win four straight, so this is not unfamiliar territory. Even if the Lightning couldn't push back in one game, this team has consistently shown that it can turn the tide of a series quickly.

But this time it feels a little different. Colorado is a far superior team to the Rangers, and even Cooper himself was surprised at his group's sudden inability to capitalize on one of its longtime strengths.

DENVER, CO - JUNE 18: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson (42) celebrates after a first period goal during the Stanley Cup Finals game 2 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado on June 18, 2022. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

"The game got away from us early, and we have shown a propensity to push back for years," he said. "Tonight, we didn't. If this becomes a common theme in this series, it will probably be a short one. I never doubt the guys in the room. Does it suck losing a game like that? For sure. We're not used to it. It doesn't really happen to us. But is it going to happen at times? Yeah, it is.

"You're just hoping it doesn't happen in the Stanley Cup Final."

The Avs showcased an overwhelming amount of speed and skill throughout the first two games. Their zone entries are so precise and the rush is so hard and so fast that the Lightning have no choice but to try to match their speed, and so far they haven't been able to.

This isn't how Tampa Bay wants to play. The Lightning wanted to slow the Avs, bottle them up in the neutral zone and push them to the outside. They wanted to force Colorado into playing low-event hockey.

Instead, it was an exceptionally high-event game, but all of the events were taking place in the Tampa Bay zone. The Bolts only managed 16 shots on goal. Darcy Kuemper turned them all aside.

"We're checking," Colorado forward Andrew Cogliano said. "Our back pressure, our reloads—it's usually third- and fourth-line guys that are key to that, they do that really well and it's part of their game, but our top two lines are, at times in the game, the best. [Valeri Nichushkin, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog]—those guys are playing a 200-foot game right now that is really just tough to play against. It gives a chance for our D to stand up, create good gaps, and we get going the other way with the fast breaks."

The Lightning wanted their checking line of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel to shut down the Colorado top line of Landeskog, MacKinnon and Nichushkin. Throughout the week, Bednar has reiterated that he will not shy away from that matchup.

Instead, it's the Colorado top line shutting everyone down. They did not allow a single shot attempt at five-on-five, according to NaturalStatTrick.com.

Nichushkin scored twice and nearly had a hat trick, but Andrei Vasilevskiy denied him. Cale Makar, a heavy Conn Smythe favorite, scored his first two goals of the Final, Andre Burakovsky had his second goal of the series and an assist before leaving with an injury in the second period, and Darren Helm and Josh Manson each scored as well. Rantanen had three assists, and Cogliano and Alex Newhook each had two.

Cooper decided to keep Vasilevskiy in the game, saying he gave the Bolts a better chance than 37-year-old backup Brian Elliott.

DENVER, COLORADO - JUNE 18: Andrew Cogliano #11 of the Colorado Avalanche and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy #88 of the Tampa Bay Lightning react after a goal scored by Darren Helm #43 of the Colorado Avalanche (not in photo) in the second period of Game Two of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final at Ball Arena on June 18, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

"Listen, this is the playoffs, and we're here to win hockey games. Vasy gives us the best chance to win a hockey game, and he's our guy," Cooper said. "He's going to be there in a couple nights. ... He's the best goalie in the world, and we win together, and we lose together. ... I don't think he would've come out. That's what a competitor he is, and that's why he's the best."

Vasilevskiy's teammates also knew they failed to give him a chance to succeed.

"He still made unbelievable saves," Lightning forward Nick Paul said. "We kind of left him out to dry there a couple times. Grade-A after Grade-A, he's not going to stop them all. He did a fantastic job tonight. We can't do that. He's our backbone, and for us to do that to him isn't fair."

The series now moves to Tampa, where the Lightning have lost only one game in the postseason and have won their last seven. But the Avs are carrying a perfect 7-0 road record into Amalie Arena.

The Avalanche are the first team in 46 years (1976 Montreal Canadiens) to take a 2-0 lead in the Cup Final against the defending champions. Three of the four previous teams to do it went on to win the series.

It's not time to count out the Lightning yet, but this is the toughest test yet for a team attempting to build a dynasty.