In NHL Finals, Avalanche go from hunter to frontrunner

DENVER — Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals has been described as the challenger catching up to the defending champion. In Game 2, the challenger flew straight ahead.

The Colorado Avalanche, predicted several years ago by many to quickly climb the ladder of NHL greatness, are two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup after a 7-0 destruction of the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning Saturday in a game that looked like a coming out party.

The question now: Can Tampa Bay come back together, like it did in the Eastern Conference Finals after the Rangers took a short-lived 2-0 series lead? Or is the hockey world witnessing the transfer of power from a worthy but exhausted champion to a young and dynamic team of the future? Was Game 2 an aberration or did Colorado arrive with more urgency than anyone predicted?

“They’re playing at an elite level right now, give them credit,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We are not.”

The hardest part remains to be done for Colorado. The next two games, including Game 3 on Monday night, will be at sea level in Tampa, Fla., and no team in three seasons has found a way to eliminate the champion so far. Tampa Bay have won 11 straight playoffs, but the Avalanche look like a different creature.

Going into the Finals, some Lightning players acknowledged that Colorado would be the best team they had faced in this championship race. But they never intended to suggest the Avalanche were better. Two games into the series, however, Colorado looks faster, more dangerous, fresher and even more engaged.

“There’s a fine line between having respect for your opponent and having too much respect for your opponent,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We have to realize that we came here for a reason. Let’s go back to our game and understand that they have an amazing team there with great skill at every position. But so are we. So let’s find out what we’re made of when they get home.

It’s becoming increasingly clear what Colorado is made of. Led by world-class point guard Nathan MacKinnon and transcendent puck-moving defenseman Cale Makar, the team also has a sizzling supporting cast. It includes strikers Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, who scored twice in Game 2, as well as defender Devon Toews. All are under 30 years old.

The Lightning, with the second-oldest average age of any NHL team, have relied on their experience to outplay their opponents over the past two years, but accumulating all that experience may have made ravages.

Going deep into the playoffs two years in a row, Tampa Bay has played more games than any other team in that span, and any fatigue that may have been felt may have been exacerbated by the altitude in Games 1 and 2. Denver sits about a mile above sea level, which may have affected the Lightning’s performance. If so, a return to sea level for games 3 and 4 might help.

They need it. After Game 1, which ended in overtime, the Lightning talked about better understanding the Avalanche’s game. But it was Colorado that solidified their advantage with a new set of accomplishments.

They became the second team in over 100 years to record a shutout in the Stanley Cup Finals by more than seven goals, after the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins beat the Minnesota North Stars 8-0 , in the decisive game 6. this year.

Colorado also became the third team to score seven goals four times in a single postseason, joining the Edmonton Oilers, who did so six times in 1984 and five times in 1985, at a time when goals were scored at a higher rate than in today’s game.

And with Makar scoring twice in Game 2, the Avalanche blueliners have 17 goals (seven by Makar) and 61 points in this postseason, a record for Colorado defensemen. Makar scored a shorthanded goal and added another on the power play, making him the second NHL defenseman to score on both sides of a power play in a Stanley Cup Finals game. Glen Wesley of the Boston Bruins did it in 1988 against Edmonton.

Colorado has won seven straight playoff games, including its sweep of the Oilers in the Western Conference Finals, and is 7-0 on the road – a juggernaut reaching top speed in Game 2 of the Finals .

“It was definitely as close to a perfect game as the players can get,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.

Tampa Bay’s normally superb goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy bore the brunt of the onslaught, allowing more goals than he had ever allowed in a postseason game. Most of it wasn’t his fault. Colorado’s blistering pace helped create plenty of bounty chances, some of which Vasilevskiy saved with remarkable dexterity.

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

Vasilevskiy hasn’t been substituted in a playoff game since 2018, a 77-game streak, and Cooper said he has no plans to drop him from Game 2.

“Even if I had, I don’t think he would have come out,” Cooper said. “That’s what he is as a competitor. That’s why he’s the best.

Stamkos said now is the time for all Lightning players to “pick themselves up,” and Victor Hedman, a veteran defenseman, said the team will do well at home. But what confused Cooper was the lack of pushback against a team that was overtaking his own.

Although the Avalanche are very different from the Rangers, Cooper said, the Lightning can build on their experience against New York by abruptly reversing their trajectory at home.

“We wrote a story,” Cooper said. “Now we just have to write another one.”

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