A hand might have slipped at the Stanley Cup in Denver, but the Tampa Bay Lightning could still recover their grip.
Refusing to lie down, the Lightning answered back-to-back losses at altitude with a 6-2 blowout win over the Colorado Avalanche in Monday night’s Game 3 and improved their standing to a 2-1 deficit in the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals .
Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay’s top line, led against more manageable matchups on home ice, scoring two points each. With two primary assists, Kucherov became the fourth player in league history to surpass 25 points in three consecutive postseasons. Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier are the others.
Anthony Cirelli, Nick Paul, Patrick Maroon and Corey Perry had the other goals for the Lightning, who now remarkably led the streak with 5-on-5 aggregate goals 8-7 despite at times immense struggles in Colorado.
Perry became the first player in NHL history to score in the Stanley Cup Finals with a fourth other franchise, with his insurance marker on the man advantage, while Maroon is now scoring in all four series on his routinely trek to the Stanley Cup Final.
Andrei Vasilevskiy has settled in after an unlucky start to the series as well as in the first period of Game 3, transforming once again into the feared goalkeeper that is expected to end up being. He made 37 saves from 39 shots and reduced the Avalanche to one goalscorer, captain Gabriel Landeskog. Vasilevskiy’s counterpart Darcy Kuemper was tipped off in favor of Pavel Francouz after allowing the Lightning’s fifth goal with 13 shots.
If there was a significant adjustment from the Flash in Game 3, it was well disguised.
Aside from having to pull Brayden Point from the roster after his brief return from injury, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper stuck by what has earned the franchise two Stanley Cups, confident that the Lightning would land a counterstrike. More advantageous matchups certainly helped with the top line, which caught more opponents from the middle six and far fewer from Cale Makar and Devon Toews, the Avalanche’s No. 1 pair.
One thing that stood out from the Lightning was their ability to play two-man games to create scoring chances with possession in the offensive zone.
On three occasions, including the ice-breaking equalizer with Cirelli, the Lightning scored, working quick give-and-go to freeze the Avalanche defender. Maroon’s marker seemed to be the most representative of the two-man playmaker strategy used to expertly knock down the opponent.
But none were as pretty as the perfect dissection Stamkos and Palat had previously performed.
Tampa’s win improves the Lightning to 8-1 on home ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, conceding the only loss in Round 1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The win also marked the Avalanche’s first away game loss in the playoffs. They had won the previous seven games in Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton.
If there’s one major concern for the Lightning, who despite their unrivaled track record, should feel vindicated by the win, it’s the mounting injury woes.
Most alarmingly, Kucherov left the game late with an apparent lower body injury after being hit by Devon Toews while falling onto the ice.
Nick Paul was also injured after an unpleasant collision. He was visibly straining but stayed in the game and managed to score a massive goal with his knees barely bent while appearing to test the break.
The extent of both injuries is unclear, but the Lightning risk becomes dangerously low if either Kucherov or Paul misses time or is significantly affected by the injuries.
If Colorado faces a decision before Game 4 on Wednesday, it’s between the pipes.
With Kuemper and Francouz less separated than most goalie tandems, the Avalanche was able to conveniently call on his reinforcements without much hesitation. Head coach Jared Bednar wasn’t tipping one way or the other, but instead tipped off the obvious to reporters, saying he didn’t think Kuemper “had a good night”.
There was no clearer difference between the teams in Game 3 than the situations in goal. With Vasilevskiy on form, it’s imperative Bednar makes the right decision between Kuemper and Francouz if the Avalanche’s series lead is going to survive the trip to Tampa Bay.
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