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Lightning-Avalanche Game 6 report card: End of the reign

After winning back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, Tampa Bay finally meets its match in Colorado.
The Lightning and Avalanche shake hands after Colorado's 2-1 win in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final Sunday at Amalie Arena.
The Lightning and Avalanche shake hands after Colorado's 2-1 win in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final Sunday at Amalie Arena. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 27|Updated Jun. 27

The end came like all the others, announced by a horn blast and acknowledged by a roar of thousands. Sticks were tossed, hugs exchanged. A chalice was presented, hoisted and paraded.

But it was all wrong, somehow.

Though the party took place in the building where three Lightning Stanley Cup banners hang, the celebrants were dressed in white, burgundy and steel blue. And the cheers came from more than 1,500 miles away, in Denver.

This wasn’t a dynasty being crowned, but a successor to the throne. For the first time in three seasons, the NHL has a new champion.

The Lightning will open the 2022-23 season without a banner-raising ceremony, like 30 other NHL teams.

The end came on the wings of an unrelenting forecheck that hounded the Lightning in their own end. On the back of a goalie who had been chased from his crease just three games earlier. Off the stick of a superstar who finally got his postseason moment after so many disappointments.

Blame too many men on the ice if you like, but the Lightning’s reign came to an end because of too many unforced errors, too many missed clears, too few shots to the net, too few productive power plays.

Whether it was the cumulative effect of playing more than 70 playoff games over the past three seasons or an opponent determined to win its first championship in more than two decades, the Lightning’s quest for a third straight Cup didn’t survive the final test.

After 11 consecutive postseason series victories, they finally met their match in the Avalanche.

Outcome aside, you couldn’t ask any more from the Lightning.

Though they faced elimination four times in these playoffs and played without their leading goal-scorer from the past two postseasons more often than not, effort and accountability never wavered. Faith didn’t give in to fear. They battled to the end with the heart of a champion.

Only on this occasion, sacrifice alone didn’t suffice.

Grade: EE, for exceeds expectations

Here’s how we graded the Lightning’s performance in their 2-1 loss in Game 6:

Playing without the puck

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), right, and right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate Stamkos' first-period goal.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), right, and right wing Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate Stamkos' first-period goal. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Nikita Kucherov is a magician with the puck on his stick, but it was his play without it that helped put the Lightning on the scoreboard first in a series where the opening goal had been pivotal.

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Taking the puck below the goal line, Kucherov was ridden into the end boards by Nathan MacKinnon, jarring the puck loose, then knocked to the ice as play continued behind the Avalanche net.

But Kucherov, down on his knees, stayed with the action, knocking the puck off Cale Makar’s stick as the defenseman tried to skate out with it. It caromed off Ondrej Palat’s skate into the slot, and Steven Stamkos beat Devon Toews to the puck, putting it between goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s legs to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.

That’s commitment, from the top down.

Grade: A

Timing is everything

Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and left wing Pat Maroon (14) argue with an official after Nathan MacKinnon's second-period goal.
Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91) and left wing Pat Maroon (14) argue with an official after Nathan MacKinnon's second-period goal. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Stamkos had a lengthy conversation with an official after MacKinnon tied the score less than two minutes into the second period. He seemed to think play should have been stopped prior to the shot because the Lightning gained possession of the puck after a delayed penalty had been called against them.

But replays showed that the center-ice official, who made the call, did not raise his arm until after Lightning center Nick Paul touched the puck deep in the Tampa Bay zone. Colorado forward Mikko Rantanen beat Paul to the puck as he chased it to the top of the zone and sent it back in off the end boards.

The Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog collected the puck, skated around the net and passed to Bowen Byram at the center point. Byram fed MacKinnon, and he beat goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy short side with a sharp-angle shot from deep in the left circle.

Grade: C, for can’t stop playing

Bad look

Lightning left wing Pat Maroon, left, yells at referee Gord Dwyer after an Avalanche goal.
Lightning left wing Pat Maroon, left, yells at referee Gord Dwyer after an Avalanche goal. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The puck was in the Lightning net, and Pat Maroon was lucky he didn’t find himself in the penalty box after Artturi Lehkonen gave the Avalanche a 2-1 lead with just over 7-1/2 minutes remaining in the second period.

Lehkonen scored after MacKinnon’s backhand pass from the slot for Josh Manson in the right circle hit Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian’s skate and deflected to Lehkonen in the left circle.

Maroon, seemingly upset that a penalty wasn’t called when Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was taken down by Manson at the other end of the ice, took a two-handed swing at Manson’s right shin following the goal. Manson appeared to get his stick up just in time to deflect the blow.

Replays seemed to show that Bellemare closed his arm around Manson’s stick and fell to the ice when Manson pulled it free. Either way, Maroon’s overreaction showed a complete loss of composure for one of the most respected and decorated (three Stanley Cup rings) players on the Lightning roster.

Grade: D, for disturbing

More to come?

Falling short of its goal this season doesn’t mean this Lightning group won’t win another Cup.

The only other team to win two straight Cups in the salary-cap era, the Penguins, took nine seasons to win its three Cups. The Blackhawks teams of the 2010s won three over six seasons.

The Red Wings teams of the late 1990s-early 2000s went three seasons between titles but still managed three in six seasons. The Oilers of the mid-to-late 80s needed four seasons to win their first three Cups, then won two more over the next three for five in seven seasons.

So, no, the Lightning won’t make history as the first team in the salary-cap era to win three straight. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this team, it’s that it knows how to bounce back from a loss.

Grade: I, for incomplete

• • •

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