Reeling Lightning focusing on own game as they try to solve Avalanche

“Let’s get back home in front of our fans and see what we’re made of.” – Steven Stamkos

TAMPA — With an extra day off, a 24-hour bonus to porum over videos and analyze this steep challenge, Jon Cooper concedes that he dominated the Colorado Avalanche between losing Game 1 overtime and shellacking in game 2 might have studied too hard.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were so intent on avoiding danger that they didn’t create one themselves.

“You’re probably focusing a little too much on the opponent, and maybe you need to go back and focus a little more on yourself. Why are you in this situation and what brought you into this situation?” said Coach Cooper.

“This is something we must do. We really can’t control what they do at all. We have to control what we’re going to do and we just didn’t do that.

“If we want to get back in there, we have to focus on ourselves.”

The chessboard for that best-of-seven Stanley Cup final has been moved to Tampa, where the two-time defending champions either secure their eighth straight home win in these playoffs or tumble into a 3-0 hole on Monday (8 p.m.). ET / 5 p.m. PT on Sportsnet).

“We’re in the same situation as we did against Rangers, who went 2-0 down (in the Eastern Conference Finals). And we found a way to win Game 3 at the end of the game there,” said Corey Perry, who risks losing three consecutive cup finals in three different sweaters. “It rejuvenated us. That got us going again.”

Only one side has gone so far.

So how can the Bolts possibly flip this sucker?

Win the first period, for starters.

Andrei Vasilevskiy (an encouraging 7-1 at the Amalie Arena) allowed three first-half goals in each of their first two games, forcing the Lightning to pinch and force plays to rally.

Risky hockey loses hockey to these Avs. Tampa must strike first to achieve its identity.

“It would be nice if these guys would chase a game sometime,” Cooper said.

The Lightning are 9-2 if they score the first goal in the playoffs. And Colorado’s only regular loss of the postseason came in Game 2 of Round 2 as St. Louis built a 2-0 lead.

Easier said than done as the avalanche flies out of the gates. Colorado’s plus-12 goal difference in the first 20 minutes makes this period his most dominant.

Staying out of the box and winning the special teams competition would also go a long way.

Colorado has forced Tampa to two panicked puck-over-glass violations and the Lightning are minus 1 on their own power play thanks to a shorthanded goal from Cale Makar.

And then it’s just about grinding harder against a fleet and a determined enemy. Win a few battles and races and Tampa could get time in the zone against an underpowered Darcy Kuemper.

“Well, we didn’t play the puck much,” Perry said bluntly.

Nick Paul added, “Everyone just has to look at themselves in the mirror and win every single fight in the next game.”

Or but…

war of attrition

Colorado’s Nazem Kadri’s major advancement was holding a cane with a surgically repaired thumb. Andrew Cogliano returned in Game 2 with a piece of metal in his finger. Andre Burakovsky was not in Tampa Monday morning while being evaluated for a suspected hand injury. And Gabriel Landeskog needed a morning skate break for maintenance.

On the Tampa side, stud forward Brayden Point also needed a morning off and has slipped to gametime decision status after his first two games since suffering a month-long lower-body injury. Point didn’t look like himself when he returned.

Both of Steven Stamkos’ knees were wrapped when he gave his post-game interview, Brandon Hagel is recovering from an illness and Victor Hedman has not been effective since he gave Alexis Lafreniere a cheap headshot in the Rangers series.

“The toll will be taken in the playoffs,” Cooper said. “And blocking shots, the groins, the hips, the cuts, the bruises, playing every other night — that’s the tribute. And when you get to the end, they miss boys, even if it doesn’t seem like they’re broken, we miss boys. We have crazy guys. That makes the playoff toll.”

So how does a coach draw the line between gutting and sitting?

“The game isn’t worth putting anyone at risk,” Cooper said. “Now there are situations where if a player can’t get hurt anymore, like it’s a pain thing, you’re probably playing the player now.

“I’ve never seen a player say he’s in too much pain, ‘I can’t go in.’ But the most important thing is, can a player get injured again? If that’s the case, walk the delicate line of probably not playing the player.”

Kümper under control

To say that Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper steals the show isn’t accurate, but he’s remained resilient since returning from the upper-body injury he sustained in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Edmonton Oilers.

Many observers wondered how Kuemper would play after the extended break, but after enduring some shaky moments in Wednesday’s series opener, he responded with a 16 save shutout.

That helped Kuemper’s save percentage rise to .901 for his 12 games in those playoffs (including two early departures through injury) and lower his goals-against average to 2.45.

While Vasilevskiy has been surrounded by goalkeeper chatter so far, Kuemper is doing his bit between the whistles.

“Yeah, I think he did a good job,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar. “I mean I kind of mentioned it after Game 1, I was happy with his game. I don’t think it was his best game I’ve seen him play, but I was happy with it. I think that was partly expected. He hadn’t played for almost three weeks. I liked him better in game 2.

“We didn’t give up much, but when he got some dangerous looks at it, he handled them great. I think he’ll get more confident if he stays in that kit. He worked hard in training, staying sharp and detailed. Maybe he will also work to somehow help his game and know what to expect. I expect him to be strong.

Helm pays a physical price

Speaking of strong, Avalanche center Darren Helm was a body-checking machine during the Stanley Cup Final, recording 10 hits in the opening game and another 12 in Game 2, where he also scored in the 7-0 win.

Helm has flourished in an elevated role, moving up to the third row while Kadri is still sidelined with a broken right thumb.

“He’s invaluable to us,” Bednar said. “If you look at our entire lineup and pick one guy who has brought his game to the playoffs the most and been as consistent as possible, you can make a difference every night (that’s him). I’d say it’s a fair, average regular season for him and just like a whole other level for us, playoff time comes in a variety of ways.

Helm won the 2008 Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Detroit Red Wings and returned to the Finals in 2009, where he lost in seven games to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he understands the importance of deep players playing along.

“I mean, I know my responsibilities. Guys I play with, my role so just stick with it and build on the positive. Forecheck, physical, good defensive plays, just building on that. Just helping along the way,” Helm said. “In the playoffs, I feel like everyone improves their game. It’s no surprise that 40 guys out there are playing better than they usually do in the regular season, so it’s a good challenge. It is fun.

“I think it’s a little bit easier to play when it comes to this trophy. Everyone says it’s the most exciting time of the year and it is and that just motivates me and I want to play even harder. I think if the other guys improve their game too, it’s easier for you to push yourself.”

Those depth plays have played a crucial role as the Avalanche improved to 14-2 overall and took a 2-0 lead in that series.

“That’s what this time is about,” said Landeskog. “I think storylines that lead into series, that’s what you make up for. We’ve been talking the whole time about how important our depth is. We talked about that in the regular season. Our depth will set us apart from other teams and push us forward.

“The boys stepped up, just like (Helm) said. Everyone improved their game. When the top lines cancel each other out, we think we have a really good chance of winning hockey games. With our team, you never know who’s stepping up each night, but there’s always someone.”

The lineups

Here’s how both teams are expected to start tonight:

Colorado Avalanche

Gabe Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Valeri Nichushkin
Artturi Lehkonen-JT Compher-Mikko Rantanen
Andrew Cogliano-Darren Helm-Logan O’Connor
Alex Newhook-Nico Sturm-Nicolas Aube-Kubel

Devon Toews-Cale Makar
Jack Johnson Josh Manson
Bowen Byram Erik Johnson

Darcy Kumper
Pavel Françouz

Tampa Bay Blitz

Ondrej Palat Steven Stamkos Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel-Anthony Cirelli-Alex Killorn
Ross Colton-Nick Paul-Brayden Point
Pat Maroon-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Corey Perry

Victor Hedman-Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev-Zach Bogosgian

Andrei Vasilevsky
Brian Eliot

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.