The Lightning gave the Avalanche too much room through the neutral zone. Colorado used its speed to back up Tampa Bay’s defense. And goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn’t quite himself.
In the end, a first period in which they fell behind by two goals was too much for the Lightning to overcome in a 4-3 overtime loss Wednesday in Denver.
Though they twice climbed out of two-goal deficits and killed off a late penalty before Andre Burakovsky’s winner 1:23 into overtime, the Lightning dropped Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final because they dug themselves too big of an early hole and spent much of the night playing catch-up.
Despite a lengthy layoff following a sweep of Edmonton in the Western Conference final, Colorado was the sharper squad at the start than a Tampa Bay team that wrapped up a six-game win over the Rangers just four days ago.
Colorado rode its forecheck to advantages of 15-8 in shots and 10-3 in chances in the first period. They put three in the back of the net, grabbing a 3-1, first-period lead.
Two goals 1:36 apart seemed to leak through Vasilevskiy as the Avalanche jumped out to a quick 2-0 advantage.
Colorado generated speed up the ice from its blue line. Defenseman Bowen Byram skated deep into the Lightning zone before passing back to Mikko Rantanen in the left circle on the first goal. Rantanen’s shot went under Vasilevskiy’s left arm, and Gabriel Landeskog pushed the puck over the goal line to put Colorado on the board just over seven minutes into the game.
Less than two minutes later, Valeri Nichushkin beat Vasilevskiy between the legs with a shot from the slot after a Victor Hedman pass along the boards was picked off at the Lightning blue line.
The Avalanche added a 5-on-3 goal later in the period, marking the first time Vasilevskiy allowed more than two goals in the first period of a playoff game.
Both Vasilevskiy and the Lightning improved significantly as the game went on, but the damage already had been done.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 1:
No sooner had Nick Paul scored to bring the Lightning back within a goal with less than eight minutes left in the first period, then the Avalanche seized the momentum right back.
Colorado again used its speed to its advantage, as Nathan MacKinnon drew a tripping penalty against Mikhail Sergachev as he tried to split Sergachev and Anthony Cirelli. Just 27 seconds later, Cirelli was penalized for tripping Cale Makar just outside the Lightning blue line, giving the Avalanche a two-man advantage for 1:33.
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Tampa Bay kept Colorado at bay for a time, as Pierre-Edouard Bellemare blocked a Rantanen shot from the center point, Ryan McDonagh got in the way of a Makar shot and Vasilevskiy made a right pad save on a MacKinnon one-timer from the left circle.
But the Avalanche ultimately cashed in on the two-man advantage, as Artturi Lehkonen scored on a back-door tip of a Rantanen shot from the right circle to extend their lead to 3-1 with 2:29 remaining in the first.
As they have throughout the postseason, the Lightning showed again in the second period that there is no quit in them, scoring twice in a 48-second span.
Nikita Kucherov set up the first after criss-crossing with Ondrej Palat while entering the Colorado zone with speed. Kucherov made a beautiful backhand pass onto the stick of Palat, who tipped the puck past Darcy Kuemper from the crease to make it 3-2 at 12:51 of the second period.
Sergachev then tied the score on a wrist shot from the the right point through traffic, off both posts and into the net.
The Lightning forecheck was relentless in the period, winning battles and getting pucks back to their defensemen, who put them on net.
Vasilevskiy was outstanding, too, stopping MacKinnon’s one-timer from the right circle and then poking the puck off the sticks of Nico Sturm and J.T. Compher on breakaways.
In his first game back after missing 10 with a lower-body injury, Brayden Point played on a line with Paul and Ross Colton, as well as the top-power play unit.
But even in a slightly different role, Point resembled the player that teammates call the Lightning’s engine. He made his presence felt on zone entries, particularly on the power play, pushing back the Colorado defense. He finished with an assist and a takeaway over 23 shifts in 17:59.
Point started the sequence that led to Paul’s goal, reversing direction as he crossed the blue line into the Lightning zone on the backcheck. He left the puck for Hedman, who chipped it up the ice. Paul beat Erik Johnson to the puck, played the puck off the defenseman’s stick and scored into the far side of the net.
In the third period, Point split two Colorado players, drawing a high-sticking penalty against Logan O’Connor with just over 14 minutes remaining, giving his team a chance to go ahead with the score tied at 3.
All for naught
The Lightning avoided what could have been a disastrous finish at the end of regulation when Pat Maroon was penalized for delay of game for shooting the puck out of play from his own zone with 1:24 remaining.
Tampa Bay made several plays down the stretch that helped to kill the penalty. Vasilevskiy stopped a Landeskog shot from the right circle. Hedman blocked a MacKinnon shot off the rush. Vasilevskiy stopped a Byram wrist shot, and Makar’s shot at the buzzer was blocked by a sliding Sergachev.
But it was all for naught, as Burakovsky scored the winner just over a minute into overtime after Compher picked off an errant Sergachev pass in the neutral zone. Hedman blocked Compher’s initial shot from the slot, but the puck kicked to Nichurshkin in the left circle, and he made a nice touch pass to Burakovsky, who scored past a lunging Hedman from the right circle.
Grade: D, for deflating
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