Disclosure: I wasn’t able to watch most of this game live. I’ve missed important hockey nights to go see some highbrow bullshit before, and usually it’s worked out all right (I think the last time was when the Avs beat the Oilers 4-0 in Game 2), but holy cow did I lose out on an awesome start to the Stanley Cup Final, as Colorado and Tampa pushed and pulled until finally the Avalanche knocked the Bolts off balance and came away with an overtime win. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that the action was more invigorating than anything that fraud Wagner ever composed.
Rust? What rust? The fearsome forwards of the Avalanche didn’t hesitate to leave their mark on this one, and the scoring started with a quick one-two from Gabe Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin in the first 10 minutes. The beautiful Avs captain fired a shot that surprised Tampa goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and just barely slipped through him, while the breakout winger who was put on waivers by the Stars three years ago followed up with with a goal of his own after some electric forechecking.
Though Nick Paul halted the momentum with a weird hustle goal from out of nowhere, the Avs still cruised into the first intermission with a 3-1 lead thanks to an inevitable score off a 5-on-3 power play. But the Lightning have played far too many playoff games to suddenly shrink in the face of an early two-goal deficit on the road, or mope about calls not going their way, and in the second they stormed back with an absolute beauty orchestrated by Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, then a long shot by Mikhail Sergachev just 90 seconds later.
Improbably the goals stopped there, as the final 26 minutes of regulation were played scoreless even when a late delay-of-game penalty taken by Pat Maroon gave the Avalanche a gaping opportunity to end it without overtime. But not long after the power play expired at the start of the fourth period, Andre Burakovsky—one of the few Avs with anything even slightly resembling the big-game experience the Lightning all possess—brought Tampa into the time machine with him. Back in 2018, when his Washington Capitals won the Cup, Burakovsky helped eliminate Tampa with a pair of goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, providing one of many heartbreaks this team had to suffer before becoming the near-dynasty they are now. In Game 1, he brought his new pals one step closer to devastating the Lightning again, finishing cleanly on an Avalanche rush that followed a neutral-zone turnover.
“I’ve been there, and I kind of know the situation,” Burakovsky said after the win. “I’ve been though it, and I kind of know what to expect and the pace and what’s at stake here.”
There are a few lessons you could take away from this game. “Nichushkin is still mega-underrated” would definitely be one of them. “I don’t know if Darcy Kuemper is a trustworthy goalie when the stakes are this high” might be another. But especially given the Lightning’s slow starts in rounds one and three, it feels far too early to make any bold declarations about who may or may not have the upper hand in this series. Colorado dictated most of the play and left their home arena with the tone-setting first win, but with Tampa’s history and reputation still looming large, this series barely feels any less even than it did 24 hours ago. (“I don’t think by a country mile we gave them our best game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.) And that’s frickin’ perfect. These playoffs have been relatively short on epic, drawn-out drama since the opening round, as only one of the last six series went the distance, and within those series only five games went to overtime. But that path has nevertheless brought us to the most exciting on-ice showdown possible, with the league’s best team trying to dethrone the back-to-back winners. So far, so good. For the rest of the next couple of weeks, I promise not try to better my mind with culture when there’s hockey on.