DENVER — Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals was described as the challenger catching up with the reigning champion. In Game 2, the challenger flew by.
The Colorado Avalanche, predicted several years ago by many to quickly climb the NHL ladder of greatness, are two wins away from winning the Stanley Cup after a 7-0 destruction of the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. in a game that felt like a coming out party.
The question now: Can Tampa Bay revive, as it did in the Eastern Conference finals after the Rangers briefly took a 2-0 series lead? Or is the hockey world witnessing the transfer of power from a worthy but exhausted champion to a young and dynamic team of the future? Was Game 2 an aberration or did Colorado come with more urgency than anyone had predicted?
“They’re playing at an elite level right now, give them credit,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We are not.”
Colorado still has the hardest part ahead of it. The next two games, including Monday night’s Game 3, will be played at sea level in Tampa, Florida, and no team in three seasons has found a way to knock out the champion thus far. Tampa Bay has won 11 straight playoff series, but the Avalanche looks like a different creature.
Entering the finals, some Lightning players recognized that Colorado would be the best team they have faced in this championship race. But they never intended to suggest that Avalanche was better. Two games into the series, though, Colorado looks faster, more dangerous, fresher and even more committed.
“There’s a fine line between having respect for your opponent and having too much respect for your opponent,” said Steven Stamkos, the Lightning captain. “We have to realize that we got here for a reason. Let’s get back to our game and understand that you have an amazing team there with great skill at every position. But so are we. So let’s find out what we’re made of when they get back home.”
It’s becoming clearer what Colorado is made of. Led by a world-class playmaker, Nathan MacKinnon, and a transcendent puck-moving defender, Cale Makar, the team also has a red-hot supporting cast. It includes forwards Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, who all scored twice in Game 2, plus defenseman Devon Toews. All of them under 30 years old.
The Lightning, with the second-oldest average age of any NHL team, have relied on their experience to outplay opponents in recent years, but accumulating all that experience may have taken its toll.
Delving into the postseason two years in a row, Tampa Bay has played more games than any other team in that span, and any potential fatigue may have been exacerbated by the altitude during Games 1 and 2. Denver sits about a mile above level. from sea. level, which may have affected Lightning’s performances. If so, a return to sea level for Games 3 and 4 could help.
They need it. After Game 1, which went into overtime, Lightning talked about better understanding how the Avalanche play. But it was Colorado who improved their lead with a new set of accomplishments.
Became the second team in more than 100 years to record a shutout in the Stanley Cup Finals by a margin of more than seven goals, after the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Minnesota North Stars, 8-0 , in the decisive Game 6. this year.
Colorado also became the third team to score seven goals four times in a postseason, joining the Edmonton Oilers, who did so six times in 1984 and five times in 1985, in an era when goals were scored at a rate higher than in the current game.
And with Makar scoring twice in Game 2, the Avalanche blue liners have 17 goals (seven by Makar) and 61 points in these playoffs, a record for Colorado defensemen. Makar scored a sniper goal and added another on a power play, making him only the second NHL defenseman to score on both sides of a one-man lead in a Stanley Cup Finals game. Glen Wesley of the Boston Bruins did it in 1988 against Edmonton.
Colorado has won seven straight playoff games, including their sweep of the Oilers in the Western Conference finals, and is 7-0 on the road, a behemoth that hits top speed in Game 2 of the finals.
“It was certainly as close to a perfect game as you can get from the players,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s normally superb goaltender, bore the brunt of the offense, allowing more goals than he had ever conceded in a postseason game. Most of it wasn’t his fault. Colorado’s blistering pace helped create a number of excellent chances, some of which Vasilevskiy saved with remarkable skill.
“We hung it up to dry,” Stamkos said. “We owe it to him to have a better game next game.”
Vasilevskiy hasn’t been replaced in a playoff game since 2018, a streak of 77 games, and Cooper said he wasn’t contemplating taking him out of Game 2.
“Even if he had, I don’t think he would have gotten out,” Cooper said. “That’s what a competitor he is. That’s why he’s the best.”
Stamkos said the time had come for all Lightning players to “man up,” and Victor Hedman, a veteran defenseman, said the team would figure it out at home. But what confused Cooper was the lack of pushback against a team that was outplaying his own.
Although the Avalanche are very different from the Rangers, Cooper said, the Lightning can take advantage of their experience against New York to abruptly change course at home.
“We’ve written a story,” Cooper said. “Now we just have to write another one.”