DENVER — The Lightning have found their way back into the Stanley Cup final by taking away space from the Avalanche’s top offensive players.
Early in its Game 5 win Friday, the way Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev collapsed on star Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon in open ice set the tone for Tampa Bay.
“When I sit on the bench and somebody makes a hit like that, it gets me going,” Sergachev said. “So that’s all I can say. I hope it got our team going, but our team was playing really well before my hit. So it’s just a part of the game.”
The Lightning had just gone up 1-0 on defenseman Jan Rutta’s goal late in the first period when MacKinnon was fed the puck while crossing the blue line into the Tampa Bay zone with no one between him and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Sergachev closed in on MacKinnon from his left and unloaded a check that took out Colorado’s best player and thwarted a breakaway.
“I think (that was) just a crucial play more so than what it meant as far as the atmosphere,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “You’re talking about one of their top players coming down on a breakaway, and ‘Sergy’ shows his skating ability and his ability to close and take away a scoring chance. A huge turning point, for sure.”
Sergachev also assisted on two goals in the 3-2 win, including forward Ondrej Palat’s winner with just over six minutes remaining in the game as the Lightning cut their series deficit to 3-2. Sergachev patiently quarterbacked the offense from the point, resisting taking a shot from the outside and waiting to get the puck to defenseman Victor Hedman down low to set up Palat in the slot.
“You don’t want to waste an opportunity by shooting it in (the goalie’s) shin pads” Sergachev said. “I could’ve shot it right away, but I thought it was a long way for a puck to go, and I saw Vic on my left. So, when you see your best defenseman on the ice on the left, wide open, you just give it to him.”
Two days earlier, when top right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak left Game 4 after blocking a MacKinnon shot and didn’t return, Sergachev absorbed most of the minutes as the Lightning finished the game with five defensemen. He finished with a season-high 32:50 of ice time while also blocking a team-high seven shots.
“What is he, 23 years old (he turned 24 Saturday), and he’s got two Stanley Cups and the amount of playoff games he’s played at such a young age,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And to perform the way he has, he’s just wise beyond his years.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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