DENVER — Barring a minor miracle, there will be no Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay this summer.
No historic three-peat.
No boat parade.
Also, it should be said, there will be no shame.
If the first four games of the Stanley Cup final have taught us anything, it is this:
The better team is winning.
It’s been a long time since anyone has had to say that around here. And there’s no disgrace, no embarrassment for the Lightning to admit that now.
After winning 11 consecutive postseason series — the third-longest streak in NHL history — the Lightning have finally run into a better version of themselves.
Colorado is young, fast, skilled, deep and famished. They look like a team on a crusade after losing four in a row to a lower-seeded team in the playoffs last year. Sound like anyone you know?
The Lightning, meanwhile, have been weakened by the salary cap, battered by injuries and seem to have used up their allotment of good fortune in the postseason.
Now, maybe you think I’m jumping the gun. The Lightning have, after all, shown a remarkable propensity to survive when logic suggests otherwise. They came from behind against Toronto, they won four consecutive games against Florida, and rallied for four straight against New York.
So why can’t they win three in a row against Colorado?
Because the Avalanche are a different kind of beast. They have stars up front and they have stars on the blue line. They went out at the trade deadline and got the kind of sandpaper players that Tampa Bay has excelled in finding. The only place Colorado does not measure up to Tampa Bay is in the net, yet Darcy Kuemper played brilliantly for most of Game 4.
Talking to reporters in Tampa before jumping on a charter flight for Denver, Lightning coach Jon Cooper alluded to the seemingly high number of fortuitous bounces Colorado has gotten in the series. He said it in the context of explaining that the Lightning have greatly benefitted from those breaks in the past.
“What comes around goes around,” Cooper said. “Eventually we’ll make ours and we’ll get ours, but it’s just the way the game is, and you can’t pout about it. You turn the page and move on.
“So that mountain is a little bit higher. Well, at least we’re still climbing.”
The truth is, Colorado has controlled the pace of this series from the very first minutes. Other than the second period of Game 1 and much of Game 3, the Avalanche have been on the attack.
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There have been stretches where the Lightning have temporarily slowed them down, but it often feels as if the Avalanche are one shift away from absolute mayhem.
When the Avalanche need to score a goal, they tend to come through. They wiped out two Tampa Bay leads in Game 4, and they dominated overtime in Games 1 and 4.
They are imposing their will on Tampa Bay in ways that Toronto, Florida and New York did not and could not. Sure, the Lightning may have had some stinker games in the earlier rounds, but they didn’t blow many leads and they didn’t lose many close games.
Cale Makar has been better than Victor Hedman, Nathan MacKinnon has been better than Nikita Kucherov, and Jared Bednar has been better than Cooper.
That’s okay. Those things happen. Maybe it’s just for this month, maybe this is the new world order in the NHL. Either way, the Lightning have still been on a historic run. They were better than every team in the NHL in 2020 and 2021. Turns out, they were also better than every team in 2022.
Except for one. Except for Colorado.
So is this column premature? Yeah, it is. The Lightning still have Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Hedman, Kucherov and a handful of other gamers and hard cases. They still have a puncher’s chance of winning Game 5, and then it would be back home for Game 6.
Yes, it could happen.
It just rarely does in the Stanley Cup final.
The last 34 teams that have fallen behind 3-games-to-1 in the championship round have gone on to lose the series. That’s 34 teams over more than 75 years of Stanley Cup finals. You have to go back to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942 to find the only team to come back from down 3-1 in the final round. (Those Leafs were actually down 3-0 when they began their comeback.)
So have faith in the Lightning in Game 5, if you are so inclined. They certainly deserve the benefit of your doubt.
Just don’t be too disappointed if they fail to pull this off. When you have won as much as Tampa Bay in recent years, there’s no shame in finally coming up short.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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