Lightning-Avalanche Game 6 report card: End of the reign

The end came like all the others, heralded by a horn blast and acknowledged by a roar of thousands. Sticks were thrown, hugs exchanged. A goblet was presented, hoisted and paraded.

But somehow everything was wrong.

Although the party was held in the building where three Lightning Stanley Cup banners hang, the revelers were dressed in white, silver, burgundy and steel blue. And the cheers came from more than 1,500 miles away, from Denver.

It was not a dynasty that was crowned here, but an heir to the throne. For the first time in three seasons, the NHL has a new champion.

The Lightning will open the 2022-23 season without a banner ceremony like 30 other NHL teams.

The end came on the wings of an unrelenting forecheck that pursued the Lightning in her own end. On the back of a goalkeeper who had been chased from his circle just three games before. Penned by a superstar who finally had his postseason moment.

Blame too many men on the ice if you will, but the Lightning’s reign ended because of too many unforced errors, too many missed clears, too few shots to the net, too few productive power plays.

Whether it was the cumulative effect of more than 70 playoff games over the past three seasons or an opponent determined to win their first championship in more than two decades, the Lightning’s pursuit of a third straight trophy has the last one test failed.

After 11 straight wins in the postseason series, they finally met in the Avalanche.

Results aside, you couldn’t ask for more from the Lightning. Despite being eliminated four times in those playoffs, the effort and responsibility never wavered. Faith did not yield to fear. They fought with the heart of a champion to the end.

Only this time the sacrifice alone was not enough.

Class: EE, for exceeding expectations

Here’s how we ranked the Lightning’s performance in their 2-1 loss in Game 6:

Play without the puck

Blitz center Steven Stamkos (91), right, and right winger Nikita Kucherov (86) celebrate Stamkos’ goal in the first half. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Nikita Kucherov is a puck-on-stick magician, but it was his play without him that helped put the Lightning first on the scoreboard in a series where the first goal was crucial.

Kucherov took the puck under the goal line and was ridden into the end cushions by Nathan MacKinnon, ripping the puck loose and then patting the ice as play continued behind the Avalanche net.

But Kucherov, on his knees, kept up the action and slapped the puck off Cale Makar’s stick as the defender tried to run the puck wide. It bounced off Ondrej Palat’s skate into the slot, and Steven Stamkos smacked Devon Toews to the puck and got it between goaltender Darcy Kuemper’s legs to give the Flashes a 1-0 lead in under four minutes.

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That’s commitment, from the top down.

Class: A

timing is everything

Blitz center Steven Stamkos (91) and left wing Pat Maroon (14) argue with an official after Nathan MacKinnon's goal in the second period.
Blitz center Steven Stamkos (91) and left wing Pat Maroon (14) argue with an official after Nathan MacKinnon’s goal in the second period. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Stamkos had a lengthy chat with an official after MacKinnon equalized less than two minutes into the second half. He seemed to think play should have been stopped before the shot was taken as the Lightning gained possession of the puck after a delayed penalty was awarded to them.

But replays showed the center ice official who made the call only raised his arm after Lightning center Nick Paul touched the puck deep in the Tampa Bay zone. Colorado forward Mikko Rantanen hit Paul at the top of the zone for the puck, sending him back off the end boards.

The Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog grabbed the puck, ran around the net and passed the center to Bowen Byram. Byram fed MacKinnon and smashed goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy into the left circle on the short touch with a sharp shot from deep.

Class: C, for can’t stop playing

Bad looks

Lightning left wing Pat Maroon, left, yells at referee Gord Dwyer after an Avalanche goal.
Lightning left wing Pat Maroon, left, yells at referee Gord Dwyer after an Avalanche goal. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The puck was in Lightning net and Pat Maroon was lucky not to end up in the box after Artturi Lehkonen gave the Avalanche a 2-1 lead with just over 7-1/2 minutes into the second half.

Lehkonen scored after MacKinnon’s backhand pass from the slot to Josh Manson in the right circle caught Lightning defender Zach Bogosian’s skate and deflected to Lehkonen in the left circle.

Maroon, seemingly upset that a penalty was not awarded when Pierre-Edouard Bellemare was brought down by Manson at the other end of the ice, smacked his right shin with two hands after the goal. Manson appeared to raise his cane in time to deflect the blow.

It was a complete loss of composure for one of the most respected and accomplished (three Stanley Cup rings) players in the Lightning roster.

Class: D, for disturbing

Is there more to come?

Missing their goal this season doesn’t mean this Lightning group won’t win another trophy.

The only other team to win back-to-back trophies in the salary cap era, the Penguins, took nine seasons to win their three trophies. The Blackhawks teams of the 2010s won three in six seasons.

The Red Wings teams of the late 1990s through early 2000s went three seasons between titles but still managed three in six seasons. It took the Oilers four seasons to win their first three cups in the mid to late 1980s, then won two more over the next three for five in seven seasons.

So, no, the Lightning won’t make history as the first team in the salary cap era to win three straight straight games. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this team, it’s that they know how to recover from defeat.

Class: I for incomplete

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