TAMPA — First, they take your measure. Your speed, your tendencies, your quirks.
And then they begin to adjust. To counter, to toughen, to frustrate.
Eventually, they begin to win.
This is what the Lightning did to Toronto in the first round. They got blown out of two of the first three games, giving up an average of 4.3 goals a game. And then they won three of the next four while giving up 2.7 goals a game.
They did it to New York, too, in the Eastern Conference final. They lost the first two games while giving up a total of nine goals. And then they won four in a row while giving up a total of five goals.
And now it’s happening again with Colorado.
It’s a more treacherous road the Lightning have found themselves on, but the signposts are familiar. Tampa Bay was outscored 11-3 in the first two games but have since outscored the Avalanche 11-7 while winning two of the next three.
The journey isn’t complete. The Lightning need to win the next two games, and they need to do it against a team that hasn’t lost back-to-back games this postseason.
“We won Game 3, then Game 4 goes to overtime, and (Game 5) was a tight game. That’s how we want to keep it; that’s how we want to play,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We know the dynamic skill set (the Avalanche) have. If we can stay disciplined, stay out of the penalty box, try to eliminate their skill as much as we can … you can’t eliminate it every shift, because they’re that good.
“But we try to do what we can to grind it out.”
It happens subtly, almost seamlessly. One night, an opponent seems to be scoring at will. The next night, they’re shooting into sticks, legs and backsides.
Some of that obviously is just the dedication and desperation of Lightning defensemen willing to put their bodies in front of screaming pucks. But some of it is how Tampa Bay has adjusted. How it has shut down lanes to the goal and stayed packed in front of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning blocked an average — an average! — of 25 shots a night in Games 3, 4 and 5. Specifically, they’re crowding Nathan MacKinnon and Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar. Between them, Makar and MacKinnon have attempted 74 shots in the last three games, and 43 percent have been blocked.
“Ultimately, you have to be hard on their good players,” coach Jon Cooper said.
None of this is a secret. It is, as Stamkos said, the way the Lightning want to play. They want low-scoring games, and they’re not afraid to play in close games. It is the formula they adopted after the 2019 playoff debacle, and it is how they have won the past two Stanley Cups.
We’ve talked about this before, but the other 15 teams in the 2022 playoffs have a .179 winning percentage (16-73) when scoring three goals or less. The Lightning win almost three times as often (a 7-8 record for a .466 percentage) when they score three goals or less.
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“It’s just their style of play. They lock everything down. They crowd the net in their own zone so they try not to get too spread out,” said Colorado defenseman Josh Manson. “In the (offensive) zone, they crash the net and they’re opportunistic. It’s a good recipe for the playoffs because you withstand and withstand and withstand, and then get your break and make the other team pay.
“That’s why they’ve had success over the last few years. It’s a good recipe. It’s tough to play against.”
Just a few days ago, the Avs were scoring at a near-historic rate of 4.75 goals per game in the postseason. And now the Lightning have held them to two goals in regulation for three consecutive nights. That’s the first time that has happened to Colorado in 101 games this season.
“When you get to this point, everyone talks about goaltending, and you’ve got your scorers and stuff, but if you don’t have a (defensive) core, it’s tough to move on,” Cooper said.
At various times this postseason, we’ve gushed about late-scoring heroics from Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Ross Colton, but the Lightning are in this position because of defense.
Just consider the scores in the clinching games of their 11 series wins going back to 2020 in reverse chronological order: 2-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 2-0, 4-0, 2-0 and 2-1, 3-2 and 5-4.
That’s a team that understands playoff hockey and knows how to frustrate potent offenses.
Colorado is Tampa Bay’s toughest test yet. The Avalanche are more dynamic than the Rangers and more composed than the Maple Leafs. The odds say Colorado is still the likely Stanley Cup champion.
But the Lightning know exactly who the Avalanche are now.
And that’s got to be a little unnerving for Colorado.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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