DENVER — Steven Stamkos answered question after question, dark circles under his eyes above an unkempt playoff beard. He stared straight ahead. He certainly wasn’t going to look behind him at the smoldering mess that was Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“People are gonna be watching this game and probably think the series is over. It’s a loss in the playoffs. We’ve got to man up as a team and as a person,” the Lightning captain said. “Let’s get back home in front of our fans, and let’s see what we’re made of.”
The Colorado Avalanche eviscerated the Lightning in Game 2, 7-0, to take a 2-0 series lead. The game was over in the first period. By the third period, the only uncertainty was when the Avalanche fans would have their Blink-182 singalong.
“Does it suck losing a game like that? For sure. We’re not used to it. It doesn’t really happen to us,” coach Jon Cooper said.
The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions are rarely beaten like that, but they’re not unbeatable. The rallying cry for the Lightning ahead of Game 3 on Monday night is that they’ve done this before: Down 2-0 to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, they won four straight games.
But the Rangers aren’t the Avalanche. Game 2 at Madison Square Garden offered enough proof of concept to give Tampa Bay confidence it could figure its opponents out. Game 2 in Denver offered nothing close to that.
“We’re in the same situation as we were against the Rangers going home 0-2. And we found a way to win Game 3 at the end of the game there,” winger Corey Perry said. “It rejuvenated us. It got us going again.”
The Avalanche look faster and stronger, and played “as close to perfect of a game as you can get from your players,” as Colorado coach Jared Bednar put it. The Lightning don’t lack confidence, but have lacked in execution, pushback and results.
If they’re going to rally, this is the way. Here are five things that have to go right for the Bolts to win a third straight Stanley Cup, now that the Avalanche control this series.
No more terrible starts
When a balloon gets punctured, it sometimes does that thing where it’s chaotically propelled around the room by the leaking air until it’s entirely deflated. That was the start of Game 2 for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The best 30 seconds of the game for the Lightning — perhaps their only good 30 seconds — came at the start, as their checking line got the puck deep into the Colorado zone and started getting to their forecheck. Things looked promising!
Then defenseman Erik Cernak failed to keep the puck in the zone, the Avalanche caused a couple of turnovers back in the Lightning’s own zone and defenseman Ryan McDonagh did what you absolutely, positively could not do to start Game 2 if you were the Lightning: He took a hooking penalty and handed the second-best power play in the playoffs an opportunity to take the lead, which it did.
“It was an undisciplined penalty by me. To give a team a power play in the first minute is never a good recipe,” McDonagh said. “Any time you do that, you’re flirting with disaster and danger. It was a bad time to have a bad start.”
This was especially true because it followed another bad start in Game 1, when the Avalanche took a 2-0 lead in the first 9:23.
“We’ve got to go out there and execute a lot better right from the start of the game and try to carry that through the show,” McDonagh said before Game 2.
Instead, the Avalanche went up 3-0 just 13:52 into Game 2, and they were the ones to carry it through.
“Did we handle that as well as we could have? Probably not. Obviously, you guys watch the game. It was all downhill after that,” Cooper said.
The Avalanche were tied for second in goals (50) and tied for fifth in goals allowed at home during the regular season, so the fast starts in these first two Stanley Cup Final games aren’t that much of a surprise. The Lightning are a much better defensive team in the first period at home (seventh in the league this regular season) than on the road (20th).
The start is key. The Lightning need something to build on. They’re 6-1 in the playoffs when they lead after the first period and 1-5 when they trail. They’re 9-2 when they score first. The confidence they’re searching for can be found with a strong opening 20 minutes; or, considering how this series has gone, a competent 10 minutes.
Possess the puck
Tampa Bay’s 16 shots on goal were the fewest the Lightning had in any game this season and their lowest total in the playoffs since registering 15 shots on goal against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 2 of their 2021 second-round series.
“We have to figure out a way to get momentum, get shots on net. We can’t score if we’re not getting any shots,” forward Nick Paul said.
And you’re not getting any shots if you don’t have the puck.
The Lightning failed to get 44% of the even-strength shot attempts in seven of their 19 postseason games. That includes both of the games in Denver. It should come as no surprise that Game 2 was the nadir of their season as a possession team: They generated 29.3% of the shot attempts, the lowest percentage for them in any regular season or postseason game.
The Lightning aren’t exactly a possession machine. They were 12th in percentage of shot attempts in the regular season and are under 50% in the playoffs. True, they owned the puck at 5-on-5 against the Rangers. But they won four straight against the Florida Panthers without having the shot-attempt advantage in any of those games.
They don’t have that luxury against the Avalanche, and not just because Colorado is the best goal-scoring playoff team the NHL has seen since 1985. Controlling the puck means controlling the pace, and the speed of the Avalanche has been the biggest difference-maker in the series.
“It’s certainly the fastest team that we played, so we got to find a way to slow them down there’s no question,” Stamkos said. “Part of our execution is putting pucks in areas where you can neutralize their speed and not turn the puck over. Not giving them freebies, which I thought we did [in Game 2]. So there’s a game plan in order to try to neutralize their speed.”
But controlling the puck also means getting offensive chances. In the shot attempt heat map for Game 2, the Avalanche looked like the surface of the sun, while the Lightning dripped some of a melting lime popsicle in the offensive zone.
What. LOL pic.twitter.com/2N49i6yDCu
— Blais (@BlaisHunter) June 19, 2022
Darcy Kuemper made 16 saves in Game 2 for the shutout. None was memorable. In Game 1, the Lightning rallied to force overtime and made Kuemper look like the potential liability many felt he was before the series: minus-1.09 goals saved above expected, and a goal surrendered to Mikhail Sergachev from the blue line.
Ask the Lightning, and they’ll tell you the puck possession problem starts on a micro level.
“Every person just has to look themselves in the mirror and win every single battle next game. We have to swallow this one. We have to put it behind us. We have to figure some things out as a group and win our battles,” Paul said. “As soon as we start turning the puck over and giving them chances, that’s when the game kind of swayed.”
Win the battles. Win the puck. Maybe win a game in this series?
‘It’s not you, it’s me’
The psychology of a champion is such that it believes that it can prevail in any situation when competing to the best of its abilities. But all champions believe that respect must be paid to their opponents.
If you listened to the Lightning after the first two games of this series, they paid a little too much respect to the Avalanche and perhaps not enough to themselves.
It’s the hockey version of “it’s not you, it’s me.”
“You probably focus maybe a little too much on the opponent, and maybe you’ve got to circle back and focus a little bit more on yourself. Why are you in this situation and what put you in this situation,” Cooper said. “That’s something we have to do. We really can’t control what they’re doing at all. We have to control what we’re going to do and we just haven’t done that.”
It’s a time-tested mindset for the Lightning. When they climbed out of that hole against the Rangers, for example, they did so by adjusting their own lineup and focusing on the turnovers they were gift wrapping to their opponents. They took better care of the puck. They earned their chances.
The Lightning didn’t look like themselves for two games against the Rangers, and then they rolled to the Stanley Cup Final by winning four straight. They certainly haven’t been themselves against the Avalanche so far.
“There were so many things that were very uncharacteristic of our group,” Stamkos said. “You gotta give them credit. You tip your cap to the execution that they had, but at the same time there’s a fine line between having respect for your opponent and too much respect to your opponent. Our group … we need to realize that we got here for a reason. Let’s get back to our game and understand that they have an unbelievable team over there with great skill at every position, but so do we. So let’s find out what we’re made of when we get back home.”
So there’s optimism that the resiliency, adaptability and execution that defined the Lightning’s past 11 playoff series victories can define this comeback.
“We have a group that we’ve been able to circle the wagons and respond. Disappointed in the way [Game 2] went, there’s no question. But I’m not questioning our team. They’re ballers in there. So turn the page, move on to Game 3,” Cooper said.
Don’t rely on Vasilevskiy — help him
Opposing goalies had a combined save percentage of .886 against Colorado this postseason. Some of that was good fortune for Colorado — facing David Rittich instead of Juuse Saros, having Jordan Binnington go from a postseason goalie finding his groove to a water bottle-tossing injured netminder — but some of that is also due to the Avalanche being an offensive steamroller.
The latter has been on display in this series. Andrei Vasilevskiy is one of the most successful postseason goalies in NHL history. He is also the reason Tampa Bay has been able to bounce back after Game 2 losses, with a 9-2 record and a .938 save percentage before Saturday night.
Vasilevskiy’s save percentage in the Stanley Cup Final is .838. He was on the hook for all seven goals in Game 2, with Cooper deciding to keep him in the game because “I don’t think he would’ve come out” if he tried to pull him.
Is it time to worry about Vasilevskiy? He’s essentially facing the same number of high-danger shots in this series (7.43 per 60 minutes, per Natural Stat Trick) as he has in the rest of the playoffs (7.44). But his high-danger save percentage this series (.667) is completely out of sync with the rest of the playoffs (.891). His expected goals per 60 minutes this series (3.00) is slightly higher than in the previous three rounds (2.86). But the biggest change so far is in rebound attempts: Vasilevskiy is averaging 6.94 per 60 minutes against the Avalanche vs. 3.61 per 60 for the rest of the playoffs.
Vasilevskiy has bailed the Lightning out of plenty of postseason jams during their runs. Maybe he can locate his fastball back at home. It not, perhaps they can return the favor and bail him out some.
“We left him out to dry. He’s been our backbone for years and years and years. We owe it to him to have a better game next game,” Stamkos said. “By no means is this on him. We’ve got to be better as a group.”
Finally, hope the stars lead the way
The Avalanche went strength vs. strength, sending Nathan MacKinnon‘s line against Kucherov and Stamkos with regularity in Games 1 and 2. When MacKinnon’s line didn’t see the top group for Tampa Bay, it saw the Lightning’s checking line with Anthony Cirelli.
“I’m comfortable with Nate going against their top guys, I’m comfortable with him going against a checking line,” Bednar said.
Why wouldn’t he be? That line with MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin had a 9-0 shot-attempt advantage in Game 2 when it was on the ice at 5-on-5, and has a preposterous 28-3 shot-attempt advantage for the series.
Meanwhile, Stamkos had one shot on goal in Game 2 and doesn’t have a point in the series. Kucherov didn’t have a shot attempt in Game 2, and neither did Ondrej Palat. Victor Hedman had three shots but was also a minus-3. Brayden Point, still working his way back after missing two series, has one shot and one assist in two games.
“They’re playing at an elite level right now. Give them credit. We are not,” Cooper said. “These are two good teams. They’re just playing at a much higher level than we are right now and I think it was evident watching [Game 2]. So we have to elevate our play.”
Tampa Bay’s stars have their names etched on the Stanley Cup twice. They are the ones who have hoisted MVP trophies and played postseason hero. They are also the ones whom the Lightning need to lead the way if they’re going to get back into this series and revive their three-peat hopes.
“We’re not defeated in our locker room. We get a chance to go home in front of our fans, which we haven’t done yet, and make it a series,” Stamkos said.