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Hello, world? Yeah, it looks like the Lightning aren’t quite dead yet

John Romano | For the third time this postseason, Tampa Bay faced elimination. And for the third time it won a one-goal game.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy blocks a shot on goal as Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) look on during the second period Friday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.
Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy blocks a shot on goal as Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) and Avalanche left wing Gabriel Landeskog (92) look on during the second period Friday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 25

DENVER — Despite the odds. Despite the altitude. Despite the momentum.

The Lightning are coming home.

Despite the injuries. Despite the exhaustion. Despite the onslaught.

The Lightning are coming home.

Despite any semblance of what might pass for common sense in a situation like this.

Holy crap, the Lightning are coming home for Game 6.

Turns out, it’s harder than it looks to knock off a locker room filled with champions. Even when they are beat up, even when they are facing a favored team, even when they have blown four leads in two games.

The Lightning held off the Avalanche 3-2 in Game 5 on Friday night to keep their three-peat hopes alive.

“We’ve got some warriors on this team, and it’s pretty impressive,” said forward Pat Maroon. “That’s it. There’s nothing really to say about that. It’s just impressive.”

It must be said, the odds are still stacked pretty steep against Tampa Bay. The Lightning must win the next two games, including a potential Game 7 back in Denver at Ball Arena.

And history says what the Lightning are trying to pull off — after falling behind 3-games-to-1 — is a tall order in the Stanley Cup final. To be precise, teams with the kind of lead Colorado had after four games have gone on to win the Stanley Cup 97.2 percent of the time.

So are the Lightning part of the 2.8 percent of comeback kids?

The way they looked Friday night, they might be part of the 0.1 percent.

“I don’t really know what else I can say to describe the guys,” coach Jon Cooper said. “You’re down in the series, the Cup is in the building, you’re in a great environment for the home team. How do you show gamesmanship? Everything they just did.

“You get the lead, you defend, you kill off penalties, score on the power play, and then when we need the big goal at the end, you get it.”

The remarkable part of Friday’s game is that it looked so much like the Game 4 loss on Wednesday night that Cooper described as heartbreaking.

Just like Game 4, the Lightning took a 1-0 lead. And lost it. Just like Game 4, the Lightning went back ahead 2-1. And lost that lead, too.

Just like Game 4, the Avalanche looked like they were gaining momentum and the Lightning appeared to be fading as the clock wound down in the third period.

Except this time, the Lightning had an answer.

While behind the Colorado net, Victor Hedman found Ondrej Palat standing all alone just above the crease and sent a pass that the Lightning winger slapped past Darcy Kuemper for the winner.

“Oh, Pally? Pally has been amazing for us,” defenseman Erik Cernak said. “He’s battling hard, he’s going into hard areas and he’s scoring goals for us.”

Honestly, this doesn’t make much sense. The Avs have outshot the Lightning in four out of the five games. Their special teams have outscored the Lightning 6-2. Colorado has controlled the puck for much of the series, and yet the Lightning walked off the ice Friday night as the more confident-looking team.

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This is nothing like the last two postseasons where the Lightning were in control almost every time the puck dropped. Other than the occasional opening game, Tampa Bay never trailed in the eight rounds of 2020 and 2021. The only elimination game they faced was a Game 7 against the Islanders last year.

Yet, in the last eight weeks, the Lightning have had to dig out of holes against Toronto, New York and Colorado. Friday night was the third time they faced elimination this postseason. And that was after losing the 3-2 heartbreaker in overtime.

“We had the mental mindset talk (Thursday) night,” Cooper said. “We’ve been here. Have we been down 3-1? No, but we’ve been in these situations where we know the feeling of being in an elimination game. We’ve been on both sides.

“It’s heartbreaking to lose in overtime, especially at home when you’re so close to evening the series and … all of the sudden there’s no tomorrow if you lose. The mental fortitude you have to have to not buckle in the environment we were just in and playing the type of game we just did? There’s a reason they have a couple of rings on their fingers.”

And that’s also the reason the Lightning are coming home.

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

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