The reigning Stanley Cup champions might have been on the ropes. But the Tampa Bay Lightning, winners of consecutive titles, returned home and cut their two-game deficit down to one, defeating the Colorado Avalanche 6-2 in Monday's Game 3.
It wasn't just the two-game deficit in the Stanley Cup Final that had Lightning fans concerned; it's how the Avalanche had won. Colorado jumped out to early leads in both games and, in Game 2, absolutely dominated Tampa Bay. Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history, was blitzed for seven goals on Saturday.
But on Monday, it was Colorado's goaltending feeling the pressure. Darcy Kuemper was pulled when Tampa Bay took a 5-2 lead past the halfway point of the second period.
Here's what went down as the Lightning got it done back on their home ice in Game 3.
We've got ourselves a series
Colorado is in somewhat uncharted territory.
The Avalanche hadn't lost since May 25 before falling 6-2 on Monday. They hadn't lost in the postseason by that large of a margin. Kuemper was pulled, putting a cloud over their goaltending. All that depth scoring dried up. It was all bad.
Tampa Bay was a force. It should have been an elating victory -- except the Lightning lost Nicholas Paul and Nikita Kucherov to apparent injuries in the process. Kucherov exited late in the third after getting tied up with Devon Toews along the boards. Paul left in the second period, right after scoring a goal.
It was the first road loss Colorado had suffered in the playoffs, but the Avs still lead the series 2-1. Tampa Bay remains perfect at home in the postseason. What does that foreshadow for Game 4 on Wednesday? Stay tuned. -- Kristen Shilton
Tampa Bay came to play
As Jon Cooper said before Game 3: "These guys are a heck of a team, but so are we. And we've been in these spots before."
He's right; the Lightning have been down before. They've been counted out before. And just like in those spots, reports of their demise in the Stanley Cup Final appear greatly exaggerated.
Second period in review: pic.twitter.com/d10Uflmrsp— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) June 21, 2022
Just like the Lightning roared back from a 2-0 deficit on the road in the Eastern Conference Final, they look like a different team in Game 3 against the Avalanche. They mustered 16 shots in Game 2; they have pumped 26 shots on the Avalanche goal tonight. They have earned 50% of the shot attempts through two periods after getting just 29% of them in Game 2. They couldn't score on the power play in the first two games; they finally tallied one in Game 3. Their stars were kept in check in Denver; Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Ondrej Palat and Victor Hedman all had multi-point games.
Oh, and perhaps most importantly: They scored six goals, to the Avalanche's two goals, and chased Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper in the process.
"We've got to go out there and find our best game right now," said Pat Maroon before Game 3, in which he contributed a goal to the onslaught. "They haven't seen our best. So we're excited. Hopefully we can show them our best tonight."
Through 40 minutes, they showed something close to it. But there's still 20 minutes more and the Avalanche are one of the few teams that could bridge a four-goal gap. -- Greg Wyshynski
Colorado down big through two
Jared Bednar didn't hesitate. When the Lightning took a 5-2 lead past the halfway point of the second, Darcy Kuemper was out after allowing five goals on 21 shots. Pavel Francouz got the nod.
It had to be done.
Kuemper was sharp early in the first period but had become a liability. He couldn't stand up to the Lightning's pressure, and Colorado (perhaps not coincidentally) wasn't playing with confidence in front of him.
This was the first game in some time that Kuemper had truly been called upon to step up. Tampa Bay trailed the Cup Final 2-0 and everyone knew a pushback was coming. The Avalanche haven't faced much adversity of late and Kuemper, who saw only 16 shots in Game 2, didn't handle it well.
Granted, Colorado isn't doing much to help either of their netminders. The Lightning have flipped the script from Game 2 and are winning the races and battles. They're beating Colorado at its own game. And Andrei Vasilevskiy looks locked in again. That might even be worse for the Avalanche than seeing their own starter struggle. -- Shilton
Lightning in the lead through one
For much of it, the Lightning's first period very much felt like survival rather than an assertive response to the Avalanche's 2-0 series lead. They needed Andrei Vasilevskiy's toe save on J.T. Compher around four minutes into the game. They needed the NHL Situation Room to take Valeri Nichushkin's floater goal off the board thanks to an offside. They needed a funky "no shot" goal by Anthony Cirelli to slide past Darcy Kuemper into the net for the first goal since the second period of Game 1.
But then, in a flash, they looked like the Lightning again. Ondrej Palat stealing the puck from a Devon Toews pass. Nikita Kucherov drawing defenders to him in the offensive zone. Steven Stamkos setting up Palat for a goal to make it 2-1, as the unsung winger notched a point in his ninth straight playoff home game. And Vasilevskiy maintaining the lead against more Colorado pressure, as the Avs had 14 shots on goal in the period.
The Lightning are 6-1 when they lead after one period. More importantly, they didn't trail by multiple goals after the first 10 minutes of a game in this series. Small victories. -- Wyshynski
Avalanche fall behind
Valeri Nichushkin thought he scored the game's first goal on a change-up shot that beat Andrei Vasilevskiy early in the first period.
It was Tampa Bay who'd be getting the change.
The Lightning successfully challenged the play as offside, taking the wind out of Colorado's sails in what had been a frame mostly steered by Tampa Bay.
It didn't last long, though. Colorado is as resilient a team as you'll find and showed it again in weathering both Tampa Bay's initial push and their early power play chance. Not only did the Avalanche hold the Lightning off, they also drew a penalty. Gabriel Landeskog scored on the ensuing man advantage to turn the tides on Tampa Bay.
That was the ninth-straight unanswered goal scored by Colorado in this series.
It was a nine-minute stretch that showed the best of Colorado: Depth, fortitude, talent, identity.
The Avalanche will need more of those segments as the night unfolds. They got sloppy as the period wore on. And it was the Lightning who took advantage with a pair of goals. Colorado hasn't had to face much adversity of late. Between the overturned goal and trailing this Cup Final for the first time, how will they manage a true challenge now? -- Shilton
Did somebody say 'chicken parm'?
Peanut butter and jelly. Batman and Robin. John Buccigross and chicken parm. The tradition of teams presenting Buccigross with the meal continued ahead of Game 3. The Lightning even got their mascot, ThunderBug involved.
In case you needed a better look, our Greg Wyshynski has you covered.
Tampa Bay is down but not out
Is the situation ideal? Nope. Is the series over? Far from it. Will this Lightning hype video have Tampa Bay fans ready to run through a wall before puck drop? Probably.
Rewrite the story. ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/AwMiVyTMrY— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) June 20, 2022