Every time the Lightning have had to win a game this postseason, really had to win, they have found a way.
Potential clinching games. Possible elimination games. Games that might have pushed their hopes of a third straight Stanley Cup championship to the point of no return.
Yes, they have looked awful at times, losing 5-0 to the Maple Leafs in the opening round, 6-2 to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final and 7-0 to the Avalanche in the Stanley Cup final.
But those performances always have come early in a series. Never with their season on the line.
With a resounding 6-2 victory in Game 3 Monday at Amalie Arena, the Lightning cut their deficit to a single game and seemed to tilt the ice considerably in a series many already had awarded to the Avalanche.
For the first time in the series, Tampa Bay found ways to neutralize Colorado’s speed, score on the power play and exploit its advantage in goal, chasing starter Darcy Kuemper in the second period.
They had cleaner exits out of their zone, got pucks behind the Avalanche defense, won battles, stayed on top of Colorado’s skaters and made things difficult for them all over the ice. They won 58 percent of the faceoffs and played a more physical game, delivering 40 hits and blocking 27 shots.
It took one game longer than usual and an embarrassing seven-goal loss that ranked among the worst in Stanley Cup final history, but the Lightning appear to have figured out yet another playoff opponent.
Just like that, it’s a whole new series.
Here’s how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 3:
Burying the Avalanche
A ferocious Lightning forecheck was the difference in a second period in which Tampa Bay outscored Colorado 4-1 to turn a one-goal game into a runaway victory.
Pressure by Corey Perry in the Avalanche zone in the opening minutes of the period caused defenseman Josh Manson to reverse the puck back around the boards. Ross Colton pounced on the puck at the goal line and fed Nick Paul in the slot to put the Lightning ahead 3-1.
After Gabriel Landeskog scored to bring Colorado back within a goal, Nikita Kucherov won a one-on-one battle with Erik Johnson in the left corner, shielded the puck and backhanded a pass to Steven Stamkos in the slot. Stamkos spun and beat Kuemper over the glove to restore Tampa Bay’s two-goal advantage.
The Lightning continued to pressure the Avalanche net, as Pat Maroon scored on a power move and Perry put back a rebound of an Ondrej Palat shot later in the period to give Tampa Bay a four-goal cushion.
The Lightning had nearly as many shots on goal in the period (14) as they did in all of Game 2 (16).
Two nights after people asked why the Lightning didn’t pull Andrei Vasilevskiy with his team trailing by five goals entering the third period, they were wondering why the Avalanche were yanking Kuemper after Maroon’s goal.
Follow all the action on and off the ice
Subscribe to our free Lightning Strikes newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Vasilevskiy earned the respect of his teammates and coach Jon Cooper by staying in net despite allowing seven goals in Game 2. Cooper said he left Vasilevskiy in the game because he gives the Lightning the best chance to win.
We saw it in Game 3, as Vasilevskiy stopped 37 of 39 shots. J.T. Compher will be seeing Vasilevskiy in his nightmares after the goalie twice moved left to right to make skate saves on Compher chances from low in the left circle, two of four or five times Vasilevskiy robbed the Avalanche forward at point-blank range.
Meanwhile, Kuemper, who had a 16-save shutout in Game 2, was replaced by Pavel Francouz just past the midway point of the second period after allowing five goals on 22 shots.
The Lightning still have the best goalie in the world. The Avalanche now have a controversy in net.
Not so fast
The Avalanche, who scored the opening goal in each of the first two games of the series, again struck first — twice — in Game 3.
Shortly after Anthony Cirelli was unable to get the puck out of the Lightning zone, Valeri Nichushkin chipped a floater over a sprawling Ryan McDonagh, beating Vasilevskiy over the blocker and seemingly putting Colorado ahead five minutes into the game.
But the Lightning challenged the goal, and a replay review determined that the play was offside after defenseman Devon Toews had the puck slide just over the blue line as he played it back into the zone.
Landeskog got the goal back just over three minutes later when he jammed a rebound of a Mikko Rantanen shot from the right circle into the net from the crease after being hit from behind by defenseman Erik Cernak.
But the lead proved to be as short-lived as the disallowed goal.
Grade: R, for rapid response
The Lightning took their first lead of the series when Palat scored with just over five minutes to play in the first period, putting Tampa Bay ahead 2-1. Palat scored on a 2-on-2 after a give-and-go with Stamkos, who set up Palat with a beautiful pass from the right circle into the slot.
Less than two minutes earlier, Cirelli ended a stretch of nine straight Avalanche goals in the series with an end-to-end rush to tie the score at 1. Cirelli passed to Maroon as he entered the offensive zone, got the puck right back and drove to the net, beating Kuemper through the legs.
Tampa Bay had numbers in its favor after a Toews slap shot from the left circle on a breakaway deflected off Vasilevskiy to the side boards, where Cirelli won a battle with Landeskog for the puck and quickly headed up ice in the other direction.
For the first time in the series, it was the Avalanche who were chasing the game.
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.