DENVER (AP) — This loss wasn't as easy for the Tampa Bay Lightning to shrug off.
What emerged from the reigning two-time Stanley Cup champs Saturday night wasn't their clutch pedigree or vaunted ability to bounce back after a loss but frayed nerves and maybe a realization that the Colorado Avalanche are coming swiftly for their crown.
Outmuscled. Outhustled. Out-tussled.
Andrei Vasilevskiy and the rest of the Lightning were thumped 7-0 by the Avalanche, losing their cool and their mojo along with the game to fall behind two games to nothing in the best-of-seven series.
This marked just the second time in Vasilevskiy’s 465-game NHL career that he allowed that many goals in a game, but his teammates said it was absurd to pin this loss on him.
"We left him out to dry tonight” said Tampa Bay's captain, Steven Stamkos. “He’s been our backbone for years and years and years and we owe it to him to have a better game next game. And, I mean, it could have been worse. He made some unbelievable saves. So by no means is this on him tonight. We got to be better as a group.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he never considered pulling his star goaltender even as the score grew more and more ridiculous.
“He's the best goalie in the world," Cooper retorted. “And we win together, we lose together.”
Besides, Cooper said, even if he had contemplated replacing Vasilevskiy in net with backup Brian Elliott, “I don't think he would have come out. That's the kind of competitor he is. That's why he's the best.”
And when he was at his worst, the Lightning resorted to acting just like any other hockey team that finds itself getting trampled: angling for a fight, and not the kind everyone expected.
As the Avs' lead grew, so did the Lightning's frustration, showing up with some chippy play and a whopping 14 penalties from the usually disciplined team used to knocking opponents off their game, not the other way around.
“They are playing at an elite level right now. Give them credit," Cooper said. “We are not.”
The Lightning had shrugged off their 4-3 overtime loss to the Avalanche in Game 1, insisting they’d bounce back behind their great goaltender now that they’d gotten a first-hand look at all that speed and skill the Avalanche throw at teams.
They were equally confident they'd deciphered Darcy Kuemper after erasing a pair of two-goal deficits in the opener.
Instead, the Lightning became just the third team ever to allow three or more first-period goals in the first two games of a Stanley Cup Final, joining the Minnesota North Stars in 1981 against the Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1936 against the Detroit Red Wings.
And this marked the biggest shutout in a Stanley Cup Final since Pittsburgh's 8-0 win over the North Stars in 1991.
The Avalanche kept both their lead and mostly their heads and now they're halfway to snaring Lord Stanley’s Cup from the Lightning as the series shifts to Tampa Bay for Game 3 Monday night.
The Lightning's confidence in winning Game 2 and gaining control of the series was well-founded. They were the NHL's best bounce-back team while winning back-to-back titles and reaching a third consecutive Stanley Cup, going 18-1 after a playoff loss since the start of the first round in 2020. Vasilevskiy was in net for all of those games.
Make that 18-2.
With a flustered Vasilevskiy still minding the net in the third period, Cale Makar became the first defenseman with a power play goal and a short-handed goal in the same playoff game since Paul Coffee of Detroit versus the Avs in 1996.
The Lightning have yet to beat the Avalanche this season, having lost twice in the regular season in Denver, once in overtime and another time in a shootout. If they don't fix their issues quickly, they won't get the chance to return to Denver after Games 3 and 4 in Tampa.
“Everyone in that in that room is still confident that we can pull this out,” insisted Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman. “You know, we’ve made it a little harder for ourselves, but that’s fine.”
The Avalanche aren't exhaling just yet, either.
“This is a championship-caliber team,” Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson said of the Lightning. “I don’t think they get frustrated. I think they’re patient and they’ll adjust and they kind of let things go and I think that’s what’s made them so successful. For us, we can’t think that we’re under their skin. We can’t think anything like that.”
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