Game 2 was … not nearly as thrilling, with the Avs jumping out to an early lead and then pouring it on en route to a 7-0 win.
The series is 2-0 Colorado as the clubs head to Tampa for the next two contests. Here’s what we learned on Saturday night, and how it will impact the rest of the series.
‘D’ is for ‘dominate’
What else can you say, really?
Colorado dismantled Tampa Bay in Game 2. The Avalanche were better in every facet, from 5-on-5, to special teams, to goaltending, to offense, defense, battles, races — you name it, Colorado excelled at it. It was shocking, in a way, to see the Lightning appear so discombobulated. There was no point where Tampa Bay seemed to turn a corner and try something — anything — to stop the bleeding.
The Avalanche kept pushing. The Lightning never pushed back.
What does that mean for the reigning champions as this series shifts to their turf? Has Tampa Bay’s confidence been cracked? Or is it that the Lightning simply don’t have the legs to keep up with Colorado? They wouldn’t be the first team in these playoffs to realize it. Even Connor McDavid had his struggles. The Avs are now 14-2 in the playoffs and have a plus-33 goal differential.
Tampa Bay needs its own stars to step up. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos haven’t been visible enough. Neither has Victor Hedman. Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t getting much help, but his struggles are a significant part of the Lightning’s problems.
The Avalanche are rolling as the Lightning are reeling. Will that momentum shift with the series? We’ll find out, fast. — Kristen Shilton
Game 2 trends flop
It can’t be overstated enough how uncharacteristic this Game 2 defeat was for the Lightning.
They were 9-2 in the second game of a series dating back to 2020, the start of their back-to-back Stanley Cup run. During that 11-game span, they had never given up more than three goals in a game. Andrei Vasilevskiy had a .938 save percentage in those games; against Colorado in Game 2, he gave up seven goals for a .774 save percentage.
But there was another big difference between the Lightning in those 11 games and this one: their starts. The Lightning scored the first goal in nine of those 11 games. In these playoffs, the Lightning were 6-1 when scoring the first goal. So getting on the board early could have made a big difference here.
Instead, their start was a disaster. After a good first shift by their checking line, defenseman Erik Cernak fumbled the puck at the blue line. Then the Lightning turned the puck over in their own zone twice, while the referees let a hooking call on the Avalanche against Alex Killorn go. Then defenseman Ryan McDonagh took a hooking penalty just 1:01 into the game, giving the second-best power play in the playoffs (31.3% efficiency) a chance to cook.
It was 1-0 Avalanche on Valeri Nichushkin‘s goal at 2:54 of the first period, and away they went.
“It was an undisciplined penalty by me,” McDonagh said. “To give a team a power play in the first minute is never a good recipe. We lost our coverage and gave them odd-man looks. Any time you do that, you’re flirting with disaster and danger. It was a bad time to have a bad start.”
“It was tough taking the penalty,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We kill it off, they scored with a couple seconds left. So did we handle that as well as we could have? Probably not. Obviously, you guys watch the game. It was all downhill after that.” — Greg Wyshynski
Cale Makar scores his second goal of the period to put the Avalanche ahead 7-0.
Too much depth
The Avalanche’s support staff are.
In Game 2, Valeri Nichushkin was arguably (or maybe inarguably) Colorado’s best player. He was an offensive force, scoring two goals and walking through Tampa Bay’s defenses to nearly score a few more. Andre Burakovsky was all over the Lightning after he scored the night’s first goal. Josh Manson scored off the rush. Darren Helm tallied one off a breakaway.
These are not the big-name stars Colorado is relying on to power through the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. (Yes, Makar did score twice in Game 2 but Colorado was already up 5-0 by then.) It’s best for the Avs that they don’t need those top-tier players to frequently dominate. The more Colorado continues to neutralize Tampa Bay’s top skaters and receive handsome contributions from every line of its own, the better.
Colorado got Andrew Cogliano back in the lineup on Saturday, but there’s still no word on whether Nazem Kadri will be available in the Final. The Avalanche will continue leaning on their depth in his absence, and those players have been stepping up so far. Avs coach Jared Bednar said before Game 2 that he prioritized keeping Burakovsky in a top-six position, and it paid off. Those kinds of instincts for when to elevate players — like Bednar did putting Nichushkin on the team’s top line — will continue to play a major role in Colorado keeping Tampa Bay on its heels. — Shilton
There’s really only one way for the Lightning to slow down the Avalanche attack, and that’s to possess the puck more than they can. That would mean fewer chances for the Colorado forwards and more action in front of goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
Instead, the Avalanche had a 60-28 shot-attempt advantage in Game 2. Kuemper’s shutout came with few (if any) dangerous chances.
The bellwether for that domination: The Avs’ top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin did not allow a shot attempt to the Lightning in 8:43 of even-strength ice time.
Meanwhile, Steven Stamkos had one shot on goal and Nikita Kucherov did not have a shot attempt in the game.
Their 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 Hurricanes in Game 2 of their 2021 second-round series.
“As soon as we start turning the puck over and giving them chances, that’s when the game kind of swayed,” forward Nick Paul said. “We have to figure out a way to get momentum, get shots on net. Not enough shots tonight. We can’t score if we’re not getting any shots. So learn from this and be better.” — Wyshynski
Off and running
Colorado’s transition game is giving Tampa Bay fits.
Colorado generated half a dozen Grade-A chances in the first period alone — and one goal from Josh Manson — from odd-man rushes. It starts with great play through the neutral zone, where the Avalanche are aggressive: They’re breaking up plays, stealing back pucks and making quick passes that spring their fleet-footed skaters in Andrei Vasilevskiy’s direction.
Colorado has defensemen (i.e., Manson) who love joining the rush and know exactly when to do it. Darren Helm’s goal is a good example of that too, creating his own odd-man chance just by anticipating when to make the right move and going for it. The Avalanche aren’t ones to hesitate. It’s how they’ve succeeded all season. Colorado’s skaters are so fast, not just on their skates but also in their decision-making. There’s a level of anticipation that skaters have with one another as a play develops. The Avalanche are in total sync no matter who has the puck, and that’s allowing them to slip behind the (frequently undressed) Lightning.
Clearly, Tampa Bay will have to adjust if it wants to go back to Denver for Game 5 (and beyond). The question is how. Colorado has been doing this to teams for three rounds. There’s miles of video to review. But seeing it live on the ice has been a different story. The Avalanche’s confidence should rightly be soaring now too, which will only make the Lightning’s task in containing them that much harder. — Shilton
Andrei Vasilveskiy stretches out to make an impressive snag in the second period in an effort to slow down the Avalanche attack.
Concern for Vasilevskiy?
The best goalie in the world has an .838 save percentage in the Stanley Cup Final. The seven goals Vasilevskiy gave up in Game 2 are tied for the most he has ever allowed in a regular-season or playoff game.
He’s the fourth goalie in the past 40 years to allow at least seven goals in the Stanley Cup Final and play the entire game. Why not take him out before the third period?
“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 the best goalie in the world and we win together, and we lose together. Even if I did [try to replace him], I don’t think he would’ve come out. That’s what a competitor he is and that’s why he’s the best.”
To a man, the Lightning said after Game 2 that Vasilevskiy was the reason things weren’t much worse in the blowout loss.
“It could have been more. He made some unbelievable saves. By no means is this on him tonight,” Stamkos said.
The fact that Vasilevskiy remained in the game despite it not being the Lightning’s night and it very much being the Avalanche’s night earned respect from his teammates.
“He showed a lot of character staying in this game. You can’t fault him for any goals. Some nice plays by them,” defenseman Victor Hedman said.
Stamkos said the Bolts let their goalie down. “We left him out to dry tonight. He’s been our backbone for years and years and years. We owe it to him to have a better game next game,” the captain said. — Wyshynski
Can they catch the Avs?
The speed advantage was glaring again for the Avalanche. They came at the Lightning in waves in the attacking zone. They interrupted everything Tampa Bay tried to do offensively. They scored off the rush all night, including two odd-man rush goals.
The Lightning knew they had to counter that speed after Game 1. The disadvantage only got worse in Game 2.
“We have a game plan, and it’s trying to neutralize their speed and their forecheck. And we’ve gotten away from it a little bit at times, and it cost us at times,” Stamkos said.
The Lightning captain said the Avalanche are the fastest team they’ve played.
“So we got to find a way to slow them down, there’s no question,” Stamkos said. “But that’s part of our execution too: putting pucks in areas where you can neutralize their speed, and not turning the puck over not giving them freebies, which I thought we did tonight. So there’s a game plan in order to try to neutralize their speed. It’s no secret they’re a very fast team, so we’ll have to find a way to do better.”
But Cooper said it’s not “back to the drawing board” after the Game 2 loss.
“They’re playing at an elite level right now. Give them credit. We are not. It’s two good teams. They’re just playing at a much higher level than we are right now, and I think it was evident watching that game tonight. So we have to elevate our play,” he said. — Wyshynski