The Stanley Cup final isn’t a best-of-four series.
If it was, the Avalanche would have been skating around Amalie Arena with the chalice over their heads after their overtime victory Wednesday in Tampa.
It takes four wins over seven games to claim the NHL’s championship trophy, and the last is the hardest to get.
If there was any confusion on that point, the two-time defending champion Lightning made it clear with a 3-2 win Friday in Game 5 that the Avalanche will have to pry the Cup from their bruised, broken hands.
The Bolts are conceding nothing.
What might have seemed an impossible task when Tampa Bay fell behind 3-1 in the best-of-seven series two nights earlier now becomes a bit more manageable. Win Sunday in Tampa and Tuesday in Denver, and the Lightning can become the first NHL team in 40 years to win three consecutive titles.
History isn’t in their favor. Teams down 3-1 in best-of-seven Cup final series are 1-35. The only team to overcome that deficit was the 1942 Maple Leafs, who rallied from a 3-0 deficit against the Red Wings.
But the Lightning don’t concern themselves with odds, expectations or past results.
They have a process, they trust it, and they focus on one game at a time. When they get into difficult situations, they lean on their 70 games of playoff experience over the past three seasons.
They overcame a 3-2 series deficit in the opening round against the Maple Leafs and came back from two games down to beat the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final.
Is it any wonder they survived elimination for the third time this postseason to force Game 6?
With their backs against the wall and a sellout road crowd anticipating a Cup presentation ceremony, the Lightning got their first win of the series in Denver in a game in which the Avalanche twice came back to tie before — who else? – Ondrej Palat scored the winner with just over six minutes remaining.
Until proven otherwise, they’re still the champs.
Here is how we graded the rest of the Lightning’s performance in Game 5:
Palat showed again he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time and making the right play.
With the game tied, the clock ticking down and the Lightning’s Cup hopes hanging in the balance, the left wing backed away from the Avalanche defense to create space for himself in the high slot. As Victor Hedman sneaked down the left side, drawing two defenders to him, Palat raised his stick to make sure the defenseman saw him.
Hedman fed Palat between the hashmarks, and Palat one-timed a shot under goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s left pad into the net. It The goal was the 11th this postseason for Palat and his 48th career playoff goal.
Twelve have been game-winners.
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After a minus-5 goal differential in the first period of the first two games in Denver, the Lightning were plus-1 in the opening stanza of Game 5.
They wanted to spend more time in the offensive zone and did, reversing the puck down low, avoiding turnovers and using their legs to break out of their zone. They beat the first wave of forecheckers and found open ice, which opened everything else up for their offense.
It started with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who helped set up the opening goal by skating the puck out of the defensive zone and passing to Corey Perry in the neutral zone. Perry sent a cross-ice pass to defenseman Jan Rutta, whose blast from the right point beat goaltender Darcy Kuemper under the glove, giving Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead with 4:37 to play in the period.
It was the start the Lightning needed in a game they had to have.
Corey Perry wasn’t taking any chances. After the Avalanche scored the winning goal with a sixth skater on the ice Wednesday in Game 4, the fourth-line wing screamed at the officials to make sure they noticed when Colorado had too many men on the ice with just over two minutes remaining Friday.
The ensuing Lightning power play essentially ended the Avalanche’s hopes for a comeback.
Perry played his usual abrasive game, parking himself in front of the net, taking away Kuemper’s eyes and leaning or falling on the goaltender when the opportunity presented itself.
He also contributed to a couple of goals.
Perry picked up the primary assist on Rutta’s goal, drawing two Avalanche players to him just outside the blue line before sending the puck across the ice to Rutta just below the center circle. He then set a screen in front of the net on Nikita Kucherov’s 4-on-3 goal in the second period, blocking Kuemper’s view of the puck.
Whatever it takes to avoid his third straight loss in the final.
Nothing kick-starts a stagnant power play like a 4-on-3 advantage. It is especially difficult to defend, because with only seven skaters on the ice, there is a ton of space for the offense to work with.
The Lightning enjoyed the advantage for 1:29 of the second period after Cale Makar was whistled for tripping Palat 31 seconds after Alex Killorn (holding) and J.T. Compher (holding the stick) received matching penalties.
After repeatedly setting up Steven Stamkos for one-timers from the left circle, Kucherov went back to him one more time. Stamkos held the puck, faked a shot and passed back to Kucherov, who beat Kuemper with a blast from the center point.
The goal, only the Lightning’s second in their first 17 man-advantage situations of the series (they are now 2-for-18), gave them a 2-1 lead just over eight minutes into the second period.
You could hear the sigh of relief all the way back in Tampa.
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