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Stopping Nathan MacKinnon might be harder than Lightning expected

The Colorado star did not score in Game 1, but his line dominated 5-on-5 action against Tampa Bay with a bevy of shots and scoring opportunities.
Alex Killorn (17) and Brandon Hagel (38) had their hands filled trying to slow down Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. MacKinnon only had one assist, but his line dominated play 5-on-5.
Alex Killorn (17) and Brandon Hagel (38) had their hands filled trying to slow down Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. MacKinnon only had one assist, but his line dominated play 5-on-5. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 16|Updated Jun. 17

DENVER — The first round of the Nathan MacKinnon-Anthony Cirelli showdown goes to the Avalanche.

For chutzpah, if nothing else.

Colorado coach Jared Bednar showed no sign of trying to duck Tampa Bay’s shutdown line when he put MacKinnon, Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen on the ice to start Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel.

There is no doubt that Colorado’s top line outplayed Tampa Bay’s checking line Wednesday with far more offensive-zone time, scoring chances and shots. It was a stark contrast to how the Cirelli line neutralized the high-powered lines of Toronto, Florida and New York in this postseason.

“There’s a reason (the Avalanche) were damn near the Presidents’ Trophy winners and doing a lot of the winning they’ve been doing,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They executed a little bit more than us. But we have not made it this far over the last couple of years because we can’t execute.”

Despite its abundance of shots — MacKinnon had 13 and Nichushkin had 11 — Colorado’s top line scored only once against the Cirelli line in the Avalanche’s 4-3 overtime win. They scored a second time against the Brayden Point/Nick Paul/Ross Colton line. Nichushkin also swapped places with Mikko Rantanen on the second line at different points in the game.

Related: Lightning-Avalanche Game 1 report card: Early trouble

Finding the best line for Point

The leading goal scorer in the playoffs the past two seasons, Point began the Stanley Cup final on Tampa Bay’s third line in Game 1 in his first game back after suffering a lower-body injury in Game 7 against Toronto in the first round. Whether he stays there is somewhat of a question.

Cooper may be reluctant to break up the top line of Steven Stamkos/Nikita Kucherov/Ondrej Palat based on the success it has had this postseason, and the Cirelli line has been valuable defensively.

“It’s not, per se, where are we going to put Brayden Point? It’s what’s best for our team,” Cooper said. “Usually when he’s up in the lineup, it’s good for us. But for him to be put in the place he was — I think he played 18 minutes (Wednesday, technically 17:59) — that’s probably a little more than I thought he might. But he handled it pretty well. He’s getting his game, his hands in order. I expect him to get more ice time if he’s feeling better.”

Whether it was matchups or a nod to the thin air in Colorado, Tampa Bay’s top two lines had less ice time than they normally have gotten this postseason, while the fourth line picked up extra shifts.

Related: A guy wearing a mask can steal the Stanley Cup for the Lightning

The perils of not having home-ice advantage

Cooper said it should not be too shocking that Tampa Bay has lost Game 1 in three of the four rounds of the playoffs this season because the Lightning have opened every series on the road. “The fact that we won one of them is kind of a bonus on our side,” Cooper said. “But it’s about winning the series. Yeah, it sucks we lost Game 1, but let’s turn the page here and see if we can get Game 2.”

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Turning on the red light

Much of the talk before Game 1 was whether the Avalanche would be able to play at their usual pace against a tight-checking defensive team like Tampa Bay. Mission accomplished for Colorado. It took an extra 83 seconds of overtime, but the Avalanche scored four goals or more for the eighth time in their last nine postseason games. The Lightning have gotten four goals in only two of their past nine games.

Defenseman re-signed

The Lightning re-signed defenseman Sean Day to a one-year, two-way contract, vice president and general manager Julien BriseBois announced in a news release. Day’s eight goals, 32 assists and 40 points in 69 games for AHL Syracuse in 2021-22 led all Crunch defensemen. A third-round pick of the Rangers in 2016, he played two games with the Lightning, contributing four hits, two shots and two blocks.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.

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