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Lightning-Avalanche Game 2 report card: Outpaced, outplayed

Tampa Bay is overwhelmed from the start in one of the worst losses in Stanley Cup final history.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) and Colorado Avalanche center Alex Newhook (18) compete for a loose puck during the first period of Game 2 Saturday in Denver.
Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) and Colorado Avalanche center Alex Newhook (18) compete for a loose puck during the first period of Game 2 Saturday in Denver. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jun. 19|Updated Jun. 20

Asked earlier in the day what he anticipated from Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he expected his team to be “way the heck better in the first 10 minutes” than it was three nights earlier in a Game 1 loss.

If Tampa Bay could weather the energy and excitement inside Ball Arena, Cooper said, it would be okay.

It couldn’t, and it wasn’t.

Not “by a country mile,” to use another Cooper phrase.

The Avalanche jumped out to a two-goal lead in the first eight minutes and extended their advantage to three before Saturday’s game was 14 minutes old. Until the final minute of the period, Colorado had more shots in the back of the net than Tampa Bay had shots on goal.

By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Lightning’s 7-0 loss was one of the worst in Stanley Cup final history.

Colorado used its speed to get on top of Tampa Bay all over the ice and took advantage of the Lightning’s poor puck management and bad decisions to create odd-man breaks and high-quality scoring chances.

A strong forecheck led to an early opportunity for Valeri Nichushkin at the side of the net and a bad roughing penalty on Ryan McDonagh along the boards. Nichushkin took advantage on the ensuing power play, scoring on a tip-in of an Andre Burakovsky shot from the right circle before the game was three minutes old.

Five minutes later, with three Lightning players caught deep in the offensive zone, McDonagh pinched to apply pressure, leading to an odd-man break that resulted in a Josh Manson goal. Defenseman Erik Cernak dropped to the ice to take away the pass, but Manson beat goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy cleanly under the blocker and over the pad.

When Burakovsky scored on a rebound of a Mikko Rantanen shot less than six minutes after Manson’s goal, putting Colorado ahead 3-0, Vasilevskiy had given up more goals (six) in the first period of the first two games of a Cup final than any goaltender except George Hainsworth, who yielded seven in 1936.

It could have been 5-0 or 6-0 in the first period alone. A Nathan MacKinnon shot-pass to the right post hopped over Gabriel Landeskog’s stick. Landeskog tipped a MacKinnon spin-around shot just wide of the net. And Vasilevskiy made a blocker save on a Burakovsky breakaway in the final minute of the period.

Cooper acknowledged after the game that the Avalanche are playing at an elite level right now, a higher level than the Lightning.

His team will have to get to that level quickly or its dreams for a third straight celebratory boat parade will sink like so much sand to the bottom of the Hillsborough River.

Grade: F

Here’s how we graded the rest of their performance in Game 2:

Taking one for the team

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy attempts to block a shot by Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin during the second period.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy attempts to block a shot by Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin during the second period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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Vasilevskiy wound up wearing all seven goals, tying for the most he has allowed in any game in his career — postseason or regular season, spanning more than 450 starts.

But he was completely left out to dry by the players in front of him.

Vasilevskiy made 23 saves on 30 shots, many on breakaways or odd-man looks. Not that it made a difference, but he might have made the save of the series when he stretched to make a glove stop on a Nichushkin backhander from in close with just under six minutes to play in the second period.

Vasilevskiy, who has played every minute of every game over the past three postseasons, might have earned more respect from his teammates for staying in the game for the third period with his team down 5-0. It sent a message that he and his teammates are in the fight together, no matter how difficult things get.

Cooper said after the game that he left Vasilevskiy in the game because the goaltender gives the Lightning the best chance to win. Had he left it up to Vasilevskiy, Cooper said, he wouldn’t have come out, anyway.

Grade: C, for courageous

Making it easy

How good is Darcy Kuemper? Two games into the series, we still don’t know.

Largely, because the Lightning have yet to test the Colorado netminder.

Kuemper shut out Tampa Bay in Game 2 while making just 17 saves, and you’d be hard-pressed to remember any of them.

The Lightning beat a better goaltender in the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin in the Eastern Conference final by getting bodies and pucks to the net, taking away his eyes and generating second- and third-chance opportunities.

So far in the Cup final, they’ve been hard-pressed to create first-chance opportunities against Kuemper. They aren’t getting breakaways, quality scoring chances or even many shots on goal, generating a total of just 40 over two games.

It’s not nearly enough.

Grade: F

High-danger alert

MacKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar are the headliners, but so far in this series, Nichushkin has been the most dangerous player on the ice for the Avalanche.

The veteran forward, a former first-round pick of the Stars whose contract was bought out by Dallas after four nondescript seasons, has three goals and four points in the first two games.

Big (6-foot-4), long and strong on the puck, Nichushkin can play up and down the lineup, and sees time on the penalty kill as well as the power play. Coach Jared Bednar calls him one of the team’s hardest workers and top backcheckers, saying he is built for the postseason.

I’ll go a step further: He’s been the best player in the series so far.

Grade: A+

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