Does excellence have an expiry date? Is there a cap on comebacks? Can courage and faith only take you so far?
The Lightning are about to find out.
For the first time in the last three postseasons, they’ve lost two games and are entering Game 5 of a playoff series.
After a 3-2 loss to Colorado in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals Wednesday at the Amalie Arena, Tampa Bay needs to win the final three games of the series to clinch a third straight title.
The Lightning put themselves in that position, as they’ve done nearly so many times before this postseason, by falling behind early in a series. Only this time it might finally catch up with her.
Tampa Bay didn’t lag behind in Wednesday’s game (Coach Jon Cooper still has his doubts about that), but there were signs of trouble in the third period. Colorado ramped up its forecheck, forcing turnovers in the Lightning zone, and the Bolts seemed content to spin the puck out to take the pressure off.
The Avalanche carried most of the game into overtime and held a 10-3 lead on shots on target. Colorado’s defenders jumped on the rush, creating cover problems for Tampa Bay and great scoring chances for themselves.
Blitz goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy held the equalizer for as long as possible, stopping a close-range shot from Valeri Nichushkin with his left leg, flashing his glove to rob Logan O’Connor on a breakaway and reacting quickly for a Gabriel Landeskog chance to block from the left circle.
But there was little he could do when the Lightning was caught making a change just over 12 minutes into overtime (and the Avalanche potentially had too many players on the ice).
Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper quickly moved the puck to Artturi Lehkonen at the blue line, and Lehkonen threaded a pass to Nazem Kadri as he sped into the offensive zone. Kadri got behind defender Mikhail Sergachev and punched Vasilevskiy under the right arm for the winning goal.
It was the difference between winning and losing, a tie and a two-game deficit.
Do the Lightning still have a comeback left? You had better hope.
The story hangs by a thread.
Here’s how we ranked the Blitz’s performance in Game 4:
The Avalanche had an advantage in offensive zone time in the first half but were behind on shots (23-22), shots on target (17-4) and most importantly on the scoreboard (1-0) after the first 20 minutes.
That was mostly because Colorado couldn’t net any shots as Tampa Bay got into the shooting lane and blocked 12 shots during that period.
The Avalanche were just a goal behind thanks to the work of Kuemper, who got off to a strong start two nights after being drawn in the second half of Game 3. He stopped 16 shots at half-time and only allowed Anthony Cirelli’s put-back goal After taking a shot from Erik Cernak, he shot off his mask and removed it before Cirelli twisted the rebound over Kuemper’s stick out of the crease.
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Cirelli’s goal, just 36 seconds into play, marked the first time in the series that the Lightning had scored the first goal.
You can block as many shots as you want, but if you’re down by a man and can’t get the puck out of your zone, it will eventually end up behind the net.
That’s exactly what happened just over five minutes into the second half, when a shot from Mikko Rantanen deflected off Nathan MacKinnon’s skate into the net, equalizing at 1.
The Lightning maintained their structure on penalties but missed two chances to clear the puck out of their zone, including one from Ryan McDonagh just outside of goal.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman is one of the best skating defensemen in the NHL, and he showed why in the second half.
Hedman twice found open ice in the neutral zone and ran through, creating scoring chances for his team.
The first time, just over six minutes into the third, he pulled a hook penalty from defender Bowen Byram. Four and a half minutes later, Hedman ran around defenseman Jack Johnson and fired with a backhand from the right faceoff spot that hit Kuemper via the stick-side leg pad to put Tampa Bay back 2-1 ahead.
Hedman may not have won the Norris Trophy this season, but there aren’t many better.
Nico Sturm was originally awarded the goal and probably deserved most of the credit as the Avalanche equalized early in the third period.
Sturm headed a shot from Darren Helm on target, then conceded the rebound and put it in from Andrew Cogliano’s right knee to make it 2-2 after less than three minutes.
The goal eventually went to Cogliano as he was the last Colorado player to touch the puck before it went into the net.
Class: E, for equalizer
Sergachev was in visible pain after two of his powerful eight blocked shots. Steven Stamkos was slow to get off the ice after absorbing one of his four.
Still, Cernak and Cirelli seemed to get the worst of it on a night in which they blocked 35 shots and delivered 29 hits (while scoring 41).
Cernak went into the dressing room after blocking a MacKinnon blast from the left circle in the second half. ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported that Cernak didn’t appear to be putting any weight on his left leg.
Although he reappeared on the bench, he did not return to the ice, leaving Tampa Bay with five defenders for the remainder of the game.
Cirelli fell awkwardly in the corner and appeared to touch Alex Killorn’s skate blade with his right arm with just over a minute remaining in the second half. He returned early in the third game, but Brandon Hagel took his place for the remainder of the game.
Class: G, for brave
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