Morning After Thoughts: Embrace the Champion level response, but there’s still a long road ahead

Through the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, it felt like Tampa Bay was battling several opponents instead of the Colorado Avalanche. Poor performance, unforced errors, and a supremely talented Avalanche team was looking to dethrone the two-time defending champs. It led to two deserved losses, one close and one a demonstrable embarrassment that left many bewildered this could happen on the sports biggest stage.

Then Monday night’s Game 3 happened, and Tampa Bay reminded everyone why they are the two-time defending champions. They still had to overcome adversity as Colorado scored first for the third straight game, but the Lightning fought back in a manner that instilled far more confidence than they had in Games 1 or 2.

It started with some breaks the team sorely needed. An overturned goal five minutes into Game 3 provided verification that Colorado wouldn’t have every break go their way. The Avalanche would still gain the lead a few minutes later on the power-play, but the Lightning were not going to back down.

No player embodied that more than Anthony Cirelli; his tenacity and unwillingness to quit was Tampa Bay’s mantra throughout the game. It is fitting that the entire game shifted the moment he powered his way to the front of the net and slipped the puck through Darcy Kuemper’s five-hole to tie the game just five minutes after Colorado took the lead. The team followed follows.

Ondrej Palat continued his postseason brilliance just 1:51 later.

Sweeeeeet Caroline! Bah, bah bah! Good times never seem so good.

Tampa Bay never relinquished the lead after Palat’s goal. Nick Paul, Steven Stamkos, Pat Maroon, and Corey Perry scored the remaining goals for the Lightning, and Andrei Vasilevskiy closed the door on Colorado with a bevy of impressive saves at 5v5 for the remainder of the game. There was even a fight in the Stanley Cup Final pitting Ross Colton v. Logan O’Connor that embodied Tampa Bay’s unwillingness to back down.

This game was all about ”it’s time something went Tampa Bay’s way”, and the signature speed that Colorado used to dominate the opening two games of the final was stifled by a unified defensive effort that saw the Lightning allow zero 5v5 goals for the first time this series. It was a welcome change that put pressure on Colorado’s biggest weakness—goaltending.

Kuemper was pulled after Maroon thoroughly embarrassed the veteran netminder with the fifth goal of the evening and highlighted Tampa Bay’s most significant advantage. If Vasilevskiy is locked in, Tampa Bay has an excellent chance of winning, especially if Colorado’s goaltending is picked apart as it was in Game 3.

Kuemper was rarely challenged in Game 2, and his shutout was more the product of Colorado’s impressive defensive effort—one that didn’t occur in Game 3. Colorado’s top defensive pairing of Cale Makar-Devon Toews was victimized throughout the night; both players were directly involved in three goals against. Toews looked like the overwhelmed defenseman from the 2020 Eastern Conference Final when he played for the New York Islanders.

That didn’t stop Toews from impacting the game, however, as he injured Nikita Kucherov with a textbook crosscheck.

Kucherov did not return, and there is currently no update on the superstar winger.

Regardless, this is the Tampa Bay template needs to replicate if they want to win the series—at least at 5v5. Colorado tilted the ice when there was nothing but garbage time remaining (the entire third period), but there are still glaring holes in Tampa Bay’s game.

The penalty kill has been downright atrocious through three games—they’ve allowed five goals on 11 power-play opportunities. You’re not winning anything with a penalty kill clocking in at 45%—you’re asking to lose a series like that. It also doesn’t help that Tampa Bay hasn’t capitalized on their power-play; they’ve only scored once with the man advantage, which came in Game 3.

The good thing is that when this game was still ”close,” Tampa Bay held their own. They capitalized on Colorado’s overconfidence and reminded the challenger why this series wasn’t over yet. However, the Lightning cannot afford another blown opportunity like Game 1 or an embarrassing performance like Game 2.

Suppose they don’t match the desperation and intensity they brought into Game 3. In that case, they’re going to be looking at a 3-1 deficit heading back to Colorado—a near-death sentence to their three-peat chances ( chances that already are dampened by the absence of Brayden Point and the possible future absence of Kucherov).

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