Does excellence have an expiration date? Is there a cap on comebacks? Can grit and faith only go so far?
The Lightning are about to find out.
For the first time in the past three postseasons, they find themselves down two games heading into Game 5 of a playoff series.
Following a 3-2 overtime loss to Colorado in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final Wednesday at Amalie Arena, Tampa Bay needs to win the final three games of the series to claim a third straight championship.
The Lightning got themselves into this position, as they nearly did so many times before this postseason, by falling behind early in a series. Only this time, it might finally catch up to them.
Tampa Bay didn’t trail in Wednesday’s game until the end (and coach Jon Cooper still has doubts about that), but there were signs of trouble in the the third period. Colorado stepped up its forecheck, forcing turnovers in the Lightning zone, and the Bolts seemed content to flip the puck out to relieve the pressure.
The Avalanche carried the majority of the play in overtime, holding a 10-3 advantage in shots on goal. Colorado’s defensemen jumped into the rush, creating coverage issues for Tampa Bay and great scoring chances for itself.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy kept the score tied as long as he could, making a left leg save on a Valeri Nichushkin shot from point-blank range, flashing his glove to rob Logan O’Connor on a breakaway and reacting quickly to block a Gabriel Landeskog chance from the left circle.
But there was little he could do when the Lightning got caught making a change (and the Avalanche might have had too many players on the ice) just over 12 minutes into the extra period.
Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper quickly moved the puck to Artturi Lehkonen at the blue line, and Lehkonen threaded a pass to Nazem Kadri as he raced into the offensive zone. Kadri got behind defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and beat Vasilevskiy under the right arm for the decisive goal.
It was the difference between winning and losing, between a tied series with three games to go and a two-game deficit.
Do the Lightning have one last comeback in them? They’d better hope.
History is hanging by a thread.
Here is how we graded the Lightning’s performance in Game 4:
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The Avalanche had an advantage in offensive zone time in the first period but trailed in shots (23-22), shots on goal (17-4) and, most importantly, on the scoreboard (1-0) after the first 20 minutes.
That was largely because Colorado couldn’t get shots to the net, as Tampa Bay got into shooting lanes and blocked 12 shots in the period.
The Avalanche trailed by just a goal thanks to the work of Kuemper, who got off to a strong start two nights after being pulled in the second period of Game 3. He stopped 16 shots in the period, allowing only Anthony Cirelli’s put-back goal after taking an Erik Cernak shot off his mask, dislodging it, before Cirelli flipped the rebound over Kuemper’s stick from the crease.
Cirelli’s goal, just 36 seconds into the game, marked the first time in the series the Lightning scored first.
You can block all the shots you want, but if you’re down a man and can’t get the puck out of your zone, eventually it’s going to wind up in the back of your net.
That’s what happened just over five minutes into the second period, when a Mikko Rantanen shot deflected off Nathan MacKinnon’s skate into the net, tying the score at 1.
The Lightning kept to their structure on the penalty kill but missed two chances to clear the puck out of their zone, including once by Ryan McDonagh just prior to the goal.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is one of the best-skating defensemen in the NHL, and he showed why in the second period.
Hedman twice found open ice in the neutral zone and skated end-to-end, creating scoring chances for his team.
The first time, just over six minutes into the period, he drew a hooking penalty from defenseman Bowen Byram, putting the Lightning on the power play.
Four-and-a-half minutes later, Hedman skated around defenseman Jack Johnson and backhanded a shot from the right faceoff dot that beat Kuemper over the leg pad on the stick side to put Tampa Bay back ahead, 2-1.
Hedman might not have won the Norris Trophy this season, but there aren’t many better.
Nico Sturm originally was awarded the goal and probably deserved most of the credit as the Avalanche tied the score early in the third period.
As Sturm drove the net, Darren Helm’s shot from above the right point rebounded right to him. Sturm backhanded the puck into the slot, and it went off the right leg of Andrew Cogliano into the net to make the score 2-2 less than three minutes into the period.
The goal ultimately went to Cogliano, since he was the last Colorado player to touch the puck before it went into the net.
Grade: E, for equalizer
Taking a toll
Sergachev was in visible pain following two of his game-high eight blocked shots. Steven Stamkos was slow to get up off the ice after absorbing one of his four.
Still, on a night in which the Lightning blocked 35 shots and delivered 29 hits (while taking 41), Cernak and Cirelli seemed to get the worst of things.
Cernak went the dressing room after taking a MacKinnon blast from the left point off his left leg during the second period. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported that Cernak didn’t appear to be putting any weight on the leg.
Though he reappeared on the bench, Cernak did not return to the ice, leaving Tampa Bay with five defensemen for the remainder of the game.
Cirelli was tripped by Landeskog below the goal line in the Colorado end and appeared to make contact with Alex Killorn’s skate blade with his right arm as he fell with just over a minute left in the second period. He returned at the start of the third, but Brandon Hagel took faceoffs in his place for the remainder of the game.
Grade: G, for gutsy
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