TAMPA, Fla. -- What a difference 48 hours and a venue change makes.
Facing a 2-0 deficit in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final -- and coming off a 7-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche that felt even more lopsided than that score -- the Tampa Bay Lightning returned home and threw an epic counterpunch, skating off with a 6-2 victory in front of a raucous crowd at Amalie Arena.
The tenor of the series seems to have shifted, and brought on a legit goalie controversy for the Avs, who replaced Darcy Kuemper midway through the second period of this blowout loss.
What did we learn in this contest? And has the momentum of the entire Stanley Cup Final shifted in the Lightning's favor?
It's a series again
After the Lightning were embarrassed in Game 2 with a 7-0 defeat, captain Steven Stamkos said, "Let's find out what we're made of when we get back home."
What a response in Game 3 from the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. They defended to their usual standards, limiting an opponent to two goals or less at home for the sixth straight game. They got star performances from their top players -- Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov had multipoint games, while goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had 37 saves.
"We had to [respond], right?" Stamkos said. "It is not a true elimination game, but this group was in this position last round and coming home we knew it was pretty much a must-win game for us, so I thought we played like it tonight. Our attention to detail was a lot better and the game plan, not that it changed too much, but we executed it. Way better effort from our group and we knew coming home in front of our fans it was going to be a little different and it was."
Only five times in NHL history has the defending Stanley Cup champion trailed 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series. None came back to win, and four of the five series ended in a sweep.
The Lightning don't have to worry about that now. It's a series again. -- Greg Wyshynski
Bring the thunder
Monday marked almost one month to the day that Colorado last tasted defeat. They Avalanche came into the Cup Final with a playoff record of 12-2. In Game 3, Tampa Bay served its visitors a heaping slice of humble pie.
The Avalanche thought Valeri Nichushkin scored the game's first goal. Jon Cooper successfully challenged for offside. Deflating.
Then Gabriel Landeskog actually scored on the power play. 1-0, Colorado. But not for long. Because after a thoroughly dominant performance in Game 2, the Avalanche didn't (or couldn't) execute to the same level. They weren't winning the races or the battles. They weren't suffocating in the neutral zone. Instead of being pushed around, the Lightning struck back -- repeatedly.
Colorado was at a disadvantage without Andre Burakovsky in the lineup following a shot block off his right hand in Game 2. Nazem Kadri (broken thumb) also remains out. But that's no excuse. The Avalanche have lauded -- and been lauded for -- their depth all season. It failed them in Game 3, while the Lightning's depth allowed them to roll right through.
And, it doesn't hurt that Vasilevskiy was fantastic. Darcy Kuemper, meanwhile, was pulled after allowing five goals on 22 shots, replaced by Pavel Francouz. Incoming goalie controversy? Just what the Avalanche don't need.
Tampa Bay was the better team in every aspect of Game 3. Colorado got two goals out of Landeskog on the power play and was thwarted most everywhere else. It was the largest margin by which the Avalanche have lost in the playoffs, eclipsing a 4-1 defeat to the St. Louis Blues on -- checks notes -- May 19.
Suffice it to say, this is uncharted territory for Colorado in the playoffs. Where do the Avalanche go from here? -- Kristen Shilton
Lightning take first lead in series as Palat slots home goal
Ondrej Palat puts away a nice goal to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead over the Avalanche.
No false start
The start of Game 3 was what the Lightning needed, and what they were missing in their previous two losses.
In the first two games of the series, the Lightning found themselves down by multiple goals within the first 10 minutes of the game. Those poor starts on the road impacted everything else in the game. They couldn't establish anything they wanted to do to slow down the Avalanche attack. They expended energy trying to climb out of those holes, leaving little to defend Colorado or establish their own offense.
Those were also self-dug holes. The Lightning gave the Avalanche a 5-on-3 power play in the first period of Game 1. They took a penalty 1:01 into Game 2. Colorado converted on both chances.
As he often does, winger Pat Maroon offered sage analysis of the situation for Tampa Bay, and how the Lightning could apply the lessons learned in Games 1 and 2 to Game 3.
"You get those guys feeling good, feeling the puck, it's a different ballgame. So stay out of the box and play our game. Play Tampa Bay Lightning hockey. Don't worry about the score. Don't worry about the outcome," he said. "Listen, if they score the first goal, that's fine. Just keep playing the way we're playing, keep finding ways to create offense."
The Avalanche did score the first goal. Well, eventually they did, as Nichushkin's change-up shot that beat Vasilevskiy was wiped off the board by video review due to an offside. Landeskog's power-play tally at 8:19 made it 1-0, but as Maroon suggested, the Lightning kept playing like they were playing.
Center Anthony Cirelli went to the net hard and the puck slid through Kuemper at 13:03 to tie the game. Then the Lightning's skill took over, as Palat intercepted a pass, Kucherov drew defenders in the attacking zone and Stamkos used that room to find Palat for his 10th goal of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay finished the first period with a 2-1 advantage. The Lightning are now 7-1 in the playoffs when they lead after the first. It wasn't a perfect opening frame, but it was good enough to build a foundation on which they constructed their Game 3 win.
"We're a much better team when we're playing with a lead. It's tough to be constantly chasing any team in this league, let alone one of the best. Today was a much different script. Obviously, they scored first but we had a much better start, we had some chances, we had some shots, we had some offensive shifts -- something we didn't really have in the game, the last two. It's a little bit different of a feel," Stamkos said. -- Wyshynski
GOAT to goat?
Kuemper remains a playoff enigma. And it got him pulled from Game 3.
The Avs' starting goalie was dialed in quickly, making big stops early in the first period. His positioning was hardly textbook, but the puck stayed out. Colorado was struggling through the neutral zone, a usual strength of the team, so Kuemper's contributions were even more noticeable in getting the Avalanche a 1-0 lead.
He was clutch again on Tampa Bay's first power-play chance. Right before the wheels fell off.
Cirelli beat Kuemper on Tampa Bay's second man advantage with a shot that looked more like a failed dangling attempt. Palat put a puck past him cleanly with another savable strike. On and on, the Lightning scored, until Kuemper had allowed five goals on 22 shots (for a .773 save percentage) midway through the second.
Kuemper wasn't making the stops he should have made. The tougher stuff stayed out. Why? Who knows. Either way, it was hello, Pavel Francouz.
It was the right call by coach Jared Bednar. As Vasilevskiy got better and better at the other end, Kuemper was floundering. He was down too early, not tracking the puck well and the Lightning were picking him apart.
Game 3 was the first time since Colorado played St. Louis in the second round that Kuemper had been called upon to step up. He failed -- rather unfortunately -- in that assignment.
Francouz was fine in relief, making nine saves on 10 shots.
What will Bednar do now? Stick with Francouz, who entered Game 3 with a 6-0 record, .906 save percentage and 2.86 goals-against average in the postseason? Or give Kuemper the benefit of the doubt like Jon Cooper did for Vasilevskiy after a rough Game 1? Which goalie realistically gives Colorado the best chance if Vasilevskiy is back in top form?
It's a big decision. All that hangs in the balance is Colorado's hopes of winning the Cup. -- Shilton
Steven Stamkos spins, shoots and scores
Steven Stamkos receives the puck and puts home a nice goal to give the Lightning a 4-2 lead.
Good news, bad news for Tampa Bay's defense
The Lightning didn't chase Colorado during Game 3. They didn't allow the Avalanche many odd-man chances. They stayed in their structure, keeping those marauding Colorado forwards in front of them and offering puck support in the defensive zone. A team that looked like it was going to get skated out of the series suddenly was able to match the Avalanche's energy. Good defense and an improved forecheck will do that.
The rather stunning result: The Avalanche were held without an even-strength goal in Game 3, after scoring seven of them in the previous two games. It was just the second time in 17 postseason games that the Avalanche failed to score at even strength. One huge factor: The Lightning had the last line change at home. That meant they could keep Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov away from the Nathan MacKinnon line and send Anthony Cirelli's checking line with Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel out there against the Avalanche's top trio.
Tampa Bay's shutdown line made such a difference in the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers when it was assigned the Mika Zibanejad line starting in Game 3. The Lightning trio didn't have the shot-attempt advantage against the MacKinnon line -- who could? -- but kept it off the board at even strength.
The Lightning talked about having left Andrei Vasilevskiy "out to dry" in Game 2. They gave him a lot more help in Game 3, and he responded in kind with 37 saves on 39 shots.
"For him to go through what he went through two nights ago and then perform like he did tonight ... not only that, but to have them score first and then have the team respond and back him up," Cooper said, "I guess that's how you get to the places that we've been."
Now the bad news: The Avalanche continued to dominate on the power play. The Lightning entered Game 3 killing just 70.8% of the power plays they faced on home ice. Colorado scored twice on the power play and now has five goals with the man advantage in the series.
"It's going to be a challenge. They're going to respond now. We've seen this before with other teams and we need to improve even more. There are a couple areas we need to improve in. I think special teams is huge, but I thought our five-on-five play was a lot better tonight. So we have to stay disciplined, they've got a great power play," Stamkos said. -- Wyshynski
Star snuffed out?
The Avalanche were missing key pieces from the lineup in Game 3. One of the ones available didn't help make up for it.
Nathan MacKinnon hasn't scored a goal in the Cup Final, notching only a pair of assists in three games. Much of the focus has, rightfully, gone to all the Avalanche's depth contributors. Bednar has repeatedly stated he doesn't want MacKinnon to put the team on his back. That's not exactly what Colorado needed in Game 3. It just needed a little star power.
MacKinnon would have earned an assist if Nichushkin's first goal stood; it was an excellent helper at that. The Avalanche just needed a little more out of MacKinnon after that, to match what Tampa Bay had cooking. Stamkos and Cirelli were scoring alongside Corey Perry and Pat Maroon, as the Lightning got production from up and down the lineup.
Bednar agreed after Game 3 that MacKinnon could bring more heat.
"I think [he can be] much better, you know?" Bednar said. "The last thing you want to do is get frustrated, especially if you're getting opportunities. Eventually they come. You don't have any choices as a player but to stick with it. You know you're doing the right things, you're creating chances, you're helping your linemates create chances. You just have to stick with it and keep going."
Cale Makar is one of Colorado's stars that has consistently produced. He rebounded from a difficult (for him) Game 1, was excellent in Game 2 and was solid again on Monday. He deftly broke up a 2-on-1 rush in the third period that didn't do much to help Colorado's chances, but was an example of how quickly he can tilt the ice and make a good play. Makar's two-point night also puts him third overall in NHL playoff scoring with seven goals and 26 points in 17 games.
Bottom line: It's time for MacKinnon to have a big night. Like, Game 5 in the second round against St. Louis level big. It's not about putting pressure on himself to be "The Guy" every night. But Colorado needs a little boost from someone right now, and MacKinnon can (and should) be the someone to help provide it. -- Shilton
The turning point? Avalanche lead
It's not often that the opposing team taking a 1-0 lead on the road is considered the turning point for the home team, but that's how the Lightning saw Game 3.
First, Nichushkin's goal was taken off the board for an offside by the Avalanche, as confirmed by a coach's challenge. But Colorado still ended up taking the early lead on Landeskog's power-play goal. "If that counts I believe in the confidence that we have to bounce back. They still scored the first goal and we were able to bounce back so it doesn't really matter when they got it," Hedman said.
The Lightning answered to tie the game and then took the lead before the end of the first period. Cooper said the Avalanche taking the lead was what his team needed.
"I think a big part of the game was the offside goal and then for them to come right down and score. I thought that was the turning point for us. We had to get the next one. We did. And then we got the next one. That just settled everything down," he said. "Not that our team was in panic, it just gave you a little bit of exhale. Like, OK, we got one. Because clearly in the game before, we could have played for three weeks and we're not getting one. The response was outstanding for the group, which we needed, and then the puck started going in the net."
Again and again and again, until the Bolts had a 6-2 lead. -- Wyshynski
Something's gotta give -- or does it?
Fun fact: Colorado had not lost a playoff game on the road until Monday.
Here's another: Tampa Bay hadn't lost a playoff game at home, either. The Lightning still haven't.
Game 3 was the first time in Stanley Cup Final history that both teams entered with active home and road winning streaks of seven-plus games.
That's an elite level of "evenly matched." Will we see that trend continue in Games 4 through 7, and foreshadow the winner of this series? -- Shilton