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How did this happen? Lightning seem to be wondering that, too

John Romano | They are two-time defending champs who came into the Stanley Cup final on a roll. So what has gone wrong against Colorado?
Mikko Rantanen (96) and Valeri Nichushkin (13) had a lot to celebrate in Colorado's 7-0 victory in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday night. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and friends are going to have to get a heck of a lot better in a hurry if this series is going to last much longer.
Mikko Rantanen (96) and Valeri Nichushkin (13) had a lot to celebrate in Colorado's 7-0 victory in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday night. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and friends are going to have to get a heck of a lot better in a hurry if this series is going to last much longer. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 19

DENVER — So, we have theories. We have hypotheses. We have wild-hair thoughts and fait accompli portents to describe what has happened to the Lightning in the first two games of the Stanley Cup final.

What we don’t have are satisfactory answers or definitive solutions.

How does a team go from winning 10 of its last 12 games and shutting down two of the highest-scoring franchises in the NHL to suddenly looking like it is unfamiliar with the advanced analytical concept known as — checking notes — offense? Or defense?

The Lightning did not play much of either in a 7-0 loss in Game 2 against Colorado on Saturday, and players seemed unsure about how to explain the shortcoming.

“It didn’t look pretty, I’ll say that for sure,” forward Corey Perry said. “We can be better, we can be quicker with the puck.”

That’s true, but it’s also not an explanation as to why the Lightning haven’t been better. Or haven’t been quicker. If there is any team in the NHL that understands the effort, pace and commitment needed to win the Stanley Cup, it is the Lightning.

Yet they have played six periods in regulation against the Avalanche, and have been certifiably awful in four of those periods. So what’s the problem?

Lightning right wing Corey Perry (10), left, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) talk between drills on Friday. Some have blamed the altitude on the Lightning's woes, but the team had been in Colorado since Monday to prepare for the games ahead.
Lightning right wing Corey Perry (10), left, and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) talk between drills on Friday. Some have blamed the altitude on the Lightning's woes, but the team had been in Colorado since Monday to prepare for the games ahead. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Is it the altitude?

There is no doubt the thin air in Colorado favors the Avalanche. But is it enough to tilt the advantage as dramatically as the results of the first two games? That seems hard to swallow.

The Lightning arrived in Denver on Monday and had five days to get acclimated to the altitude by Game 2. And with all that extra time, they played even worse than they did in Game 1.

If the thin air is that big of a factor, the Avalanche would never lose at Ball Arena.

“We’ve been here a week. So it’s been a long time just to play two games. Our guys weren’t huffing and puffing on the bench,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “If there’s one team that doesn’t hand out excuses, it’s us.”

So are the Lightning worn out?

Because of the pandemic and readjusted schedules, the Lightning have played more postseason games in a shorter period of time than any team in NHL history. When they take the ice for Game 3 Monday night in Amalie Arena, it will be their 65th playoff game (excluding the round robin in 2020) in the last 22 months. That’s a ton of high-intensity games with shortened offseasons.

By comparison, the Avs are next in line and Game 3 will be their 39th postseason game since 2020.

You might argue that Tampa Bay has gotten a break because the 2019-20 and 2020-21 regular seasons were shortened, but there’s really no comparison with the rigors of playoff hockey.

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Then, there is the question of age. Ten of Tampa Bay’s 18 skaters in the first two games are over 30. Only four of Colorado’s skaters have celebrated a 30th birthday. Are the Avs just younger and fresher?

“I think having the ultimate goal, the Stanley Cup in the building, trumps everything,” Cooper said. “I’m not a believer in: ‘They’ve played a lot of hockey.’ Isn’t that what you want to do? I’d rather be playing hockey than having a five-month summer every year.

“The toll is taken in the playoffs. That’s the toll. The shot blocking, the groins, the hips, the cuts, the bruises, the playing every second night. That’s the toll. They’re missing guys, we’re missing guys. We’ve got banged-up guys. That’s what the playoff toll does. It’s not what happened last year.”

Tampa Bay Lightning center Ross Colton (79) skates past Avalanche players as they celebrate a second-period goal by center Darren Helm (43) in Game 2.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Ross Colton (79) skates past Avalanche players as they celebrate a second-period goal by center Darren Helm (43) in Game 2. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

So are the Avs just that much better?

It’s worth considering. Like the Lightning, they have a world-class defenseman with Cale Makar. Like the Lightning, they have a world-class forward with Nathan MacKinnon. Like the Lightning, they acquired some sandpaper players at the trade deadline to make them more formidable in the postseason.

And, like the Lightning the previous two seasons, they seem to have reached their peak at the perfect moment.

“That was the most dominant, best team-game performance I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” six-time Stanley Cup winner Mark Messier said on ABC after Game 2. “From the start of the game to the finish. Discipline. They did everything that you could possibly do to make it a perfect performance.

“Tampa Bay has a lot of problems to solve.”

Colorado coach Jared Bednar said Sunday morning that he could use Game 2 as a template for future games to follow. Even Cooper seemed to allude to that, saying repeatedly that Colorado was playing “elite” hockey while the Lightning were not.

So is there an answer in any of that?

Maybe. Maybe there’s a bit of truth in all of those ideas.

Maybe the Lightning play better at home, where they’ve won seven in a row. But they’ve still got to win at least one in Colorado if they want to survive.

And they still have to play every other night for the rest of the series.

And they still have to figure out a way to slow down an Avs offense operating with high-end speed.

“We realize our position. It’s not a great one,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Let’s man up, and then let’s turn the page.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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