Like a stuffed-up nose suddenly clearing, a finicky laptop running smoothly upon a reboot, or that fan that stopped making that weird noise when you unplugged it and smacked it a few times, the Tampa Bay Lightning arrived home for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final having inexplicably fixed everything that had gone so wrong for them in Game 2. In a comprehensive 6-2 defeat of the Colorado Avalanche, the Lightning not only gained a foothold back into this series, but they’ve sent their invincible-looking opponents scrambling for answers, forcing a Game 4 where the Avs will be on edge and under pressure to reassert dominance.
It didn’t start so hot for the Bolts, and in fact the first apparent goal of this game looked to be a continuation of the last, as Val Nichushkin seemingly picked up his fourth of the series when he floated a shot by Andrei Vasilevskiy. But the ungentlemanly choice of a replay review by the Lightning, coupled with the zoom-and-enhance tech available to the modern NHL, revealed that the puck briefly exited the zone in the build-up to the goal. No matter. Gabe Landeskog kept the Avs rolling with a power play rebound goal from close range that made it 1-0.
But then, funnily enough, everything just started to go right for the Lightning. Anthony Cirelli—who has a penalty killer’s heart and had scored just one goal all playoffs, back in the first round—gained from out of nowhere the soul of Pavel Bure. This tying score was about 75 percent beauty, in the speed and the way that puck comes into his control off the skate, and about 25 percent luck, with the way he’s able to slip it past Darcy Kuemper just before the wheels come off.
And then the Lightning really looked like the Lightning again with their second goal. They just did the thing where their great forwards make some mesmerizing passes and end up with an amazing opportunity to score. Why didn’t they do this in Game 2, which they spent meandering without any kind of effective counterpunch? I don’t know, but those of us with very short memories can now appreciate their deadliness again.
It got better when Nick Paul, a key mid-season acquisition from the Sens, returned from an in-game knock to score what turned out to be the game-winner. And when Landeskog got one back to keep things close for the Avalanche, still early in the second, the grizzled vets of the Lightning buried Colorado for good with a trio of goals in seven minutes. Steven Stamkos took a pass from Nikita Kucherov in the slot and didn’t screw up his chance. Then Pat Maroon—frickin’ Pat Maroon—knocked Kuemper out of the game with a conniving little shot from close enough to touch. And finally, Corey Perry—who joined the Lightning after failing to beat them in two straight Finals—welcomed Pavel Francouz into the net by extending the lead out to four. That’s where it stayed the rest of the night.
Maybe the most compelling explanation for the sudden reversal in this series is also the most superstitious. The Lightning were missing Brayden Point, who had come back for the two losses in Denver after missing 10 games in which Tampa went 8-2. The Avs, meanwhile, were without Andre Burakovsky, who scored the OT winner in Game 1 and has been something like Lightning poison in the past.
More realistically, though, Tampa is a great team with a wealth of experience, and the emotional advantage provided by this first game back at home was always going to make it the most winnable. While it is a little surprising to see them leap back into championship form after they looked dead on the side of I-25 back on Saturday, it’s not exactly an eyeball-popping shock that the back-to-back defending Cup winners were able to play well and win a hockey game. Now it’s time for the Avalanche to take the same lesson from this loss, which is that past outcomes don’t have to predict future results.
“We try to stay as even-keeled as you possibly can,” Landeskog, the Colorado captain, said after the game. “Even when we win, it’s not much to it. And when you lose, it’s the same thing. You watch some video, watch some tape and learn and get better from it.”