Avalanche turns back Lightning to win thrilling Stanley Cup finals opener

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DENVER — The blast came from Colorado Avalanche forward Andre Burakovsky just 83 seconds after overtime, a one-timer from the right circle. Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was so strong during this Stanley Cup playoff, didn’t stand a chance. Ball Arena got excited when the home team took a 1-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals with a 4-3 win in an exciting game opener to the series.

Before Burakovsky’s exploits, Colorado took an early back-and-forth lead 3-1 before the two-time defending champions roared back to level 3 late in the second period. After a goalless third period, extra time awaited.

Burakovsky, a 2018 Stanley Cup hero for the Capitals, made sure it didn’t last long.

The series continues with Game 2 on Saturday night.

Tampa Bay has built a powerhouse. But is Colorado’s turn to claim fame?

“The right team won the game,” said lighting coach Jon Cooper. “We’ve gotten better at ourselves. I don’t think we gave them our best game by a country mile.”

The Lightning, which is aiming to become the first team in nearly 40 years to win three straight titles (the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980 to 1983), has won 11 consecutive playoff series spanning into the Pass back 2020 postseason.

Colorado performed well despite its lack of Finals experience. The Avalanche, who hadn’t made it past the second round of the playoffs since 2002, took a 2-0 lead and held a 3-1 lead at the first break.

Tampa Bay was undeterred and held the game there until late in the second half, equalizing by two goals within 48 seconds.

Winger Nikita Kucherov deketed past a Colorado defender before meeting Ondrej Palat, who defeated Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper to cut the deficit to 3-2. Defender Mikhail Sergachev tied the game a few ticks later with 6:21 in the second round.

Colorado had never faced a team like the Lightning in the postseason, with Tampa Bay’s experience and elite goalie Vasilevskiy. But Vasilevskiy struggled to open the game in the charged atmosphere of the Ball Arena. Prior to Game 1, Vasilevskiy had never allowed three or more goals in the first period of a playoff game in his career. In the first third alone he fired three of 15 shots.

After that he stood his ground – until extra time.

Kuemper, on the other hand, was back in the net for the first time since his upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. He said he was “100 per cent” healthy heading into this final and had played like that in the first third. But his only lull in the second third left a tense third.

Colorado coach Jared Bednar expressed a lot of confidence in his young team ahead of Wednesday’s game.

​​ “A lot of experience, they know how to win, we get that,” said Bednar. “I feel like we’ve been preparing our team for this moment since day one of training camp… They might have more experience, but we’re here to prove we’re the best team in the league, and ours is right there mindset is on.”

Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog opened the scoring with a rebound in front at 7:47 of the first. Colorado doubled their lead less than two minutes later with forward Valeri Nichushkin’s goal from high position.

Tampa Bay finally got on the board after a breakaway hustle play by forward Nick Paul with 7:34 in the first. Colorado responded five minutes later with a goal from forward Artturi Lehkonen to give the Avalanche a five-for-three advantage before Tampa Bay continued its run.

Amid the overtime loss, there was a bright spot for the flash.

Tampa Bay got the boost it needed from center Brayden Point, who was playing in his first game since suffering a lower body injury in a Game 7 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 14. Point had a second assist on his return. Meanwhile, Colorado was still without Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano after both underwent surgery for hand injuries sustained during the Western Conference Finals.

Tampa Bay has faced adversity before in the postseason, most recently mustering to defeat the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals after losing the first two games of that series. It rallied to win the next four. Now in a 1-0 hole in the final, the cup winner needs another comeback.

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