The 2022 Avalanche know how to play pretty, and while most hockey players probably won’t take that as a compliment, I mean it as one. They were fourth in the league in scoring this year and only got better at it in the playoffs. They knew how to hold possession of the puck, with only the Lightning boasting fewer giveaways all season. They’re dynamic and creative with the man advantage, scoring on over a third of their opportunities in these playoffs. And on the flip side, in large part because of how much they’ve controlled the game in the offensive zone, these Avs were a mere 20th in the league in blocked shots, and 23rd in hits. With seven different 20-goal scorers and nine guys with at least five in the playoffs, the Avalanche have made it clear how well they understand beautiful, attacking hockey, and it so often feels like Makar, or MacKinnon, or Rantanen, or Landeskog, or Nichushkin, or Kadri is just moments away from a devastating break that gets everyone to their feet. They’re fun and charismatic and overflowing with talent, and it’s allowed them to beat the similarly gifted Lightning at their own game so far in this Stanley Cup Final.
But Game 4 on Wednesday night was a little bit different—not in its outcome, as the Avalanche won 3-2 in overtime to take a 3-1 series lead—but in the way Colorado got there. In an ugly, physical game that took a toll particularly on the Lightning, the Avs manufactured their own luck through weird bounces, elite conditioning, and a determination to keep trying the net even as the Lightning maintained a fanatical devotion to stopping shots from getting through to Andrei Vasilevskiy. The resulting highlights were quite unlike the show-stealing moments that have defined Colorado’s run so far. Instead, they were indicative of a team willing to sneak through any crack, no matter how tiny, in order to continue on their path to the Cup.
The first period, in particular, was a bizarre one, as the Lightning scored almost instantly, and overwhelmed the Avs in the shots category, but didn’t actually have a lot of offensive zone possession. The pattern was that Colorado would hold the puck for a while but fail to pull apart Tampa’s defensive discipline, and then the Lightning would take it for a quick chance, and then the Avs would get it back and reset.
That brought us into the intermission with a 1-0 Lightning lead, but Tampa’s first penalty of the game, three minutes into the second, finally gave the Avalanche that little bit of extra space they needed to make something happen. A Nathan MacKinnon goal on the power play, with assists from Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar, is just about the least surprising Avalanche event you could come up with, on paper. But the way it happened, almost completely by accident with MacKinnon not even looking at the puck as it hit off him and went in, was something rarer. This wasn’t a skill goal. It’s just a goal that can happen when you’re not used to being scoreless this far into a game and are trying really damn hard to get something on the board.
Victor Hedman restored the Lightning lead by taking advantage of both the old defenseman Jack Johnson and the fragile goalie Darcy Kuemper. But in the third the Avalanche tied it back up with another uncharacteristically awkward goal. I love this one, though, specifically because of the trio that created it: Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm, and Nico Sturm, who all currently sit a respective 13th, 14th, and 19th on the points leaderboard for the Avalanche in these playoffs. This is the quirky fourth line, featuring the two oldest forwards on the team in the veterans Cogliano and Helm, plus the much younger, finicky Sturm, who’s failed to score in 32 games since he was traded from the Wild. They are the last names you think of when you consider the all-star team that is Colorado, but because of this confounding sequence, they’re the reason this series isn’t tied.
The Kadri goal that ended overtime was also mega bizarre, even if it was easily the most skillful of the night, because nobody realized it was a goal at first and everybody complained about it afterward. But however that last goal came—and with the Lightning looking so exhausted it felt like this was the Avs’ OT to lose—it was going to be the finishing touch on a comprehensive tactical and psychological victory for the Avalanche. Despite Tampa starting the game as perfectly as possible and keeping their opponent from playing its preferred style, Colorado still found a way to grind out a debilitating road win against a much more experienced foe. They didn’t simply overpower the Lightning like they did in Game 2; they did something even more frustrating.