The back-to-back Stanley Cup champions had been overwhelmed in a 7-0 loss in Game 2 at Ball Arena in Denver on Saturday, and they were down 2-0 in the best-of-7 series.
“That showing last game didn’t sit well with anyone in that locker room,” forward Anthony Cirelli said. “We knew we had to come out strong and have a big bounce-back game. I thought that’s what we did.”
But Game 3 — and maybe the series — turned on gut feel as well as guts, on luck as well as execution, and it showed how fragile confidence can be even for proven winners at the highest level.
The Lightning fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 in the first period of Game 1, then lost 4-3 in overtime. They fell behind 3-0 in the first period of Game 2 and got blown out.
Five minutes into the first period of Game 3, Avalanche forward Valeri Nichushkin appeared to put the Lightning behind 1-0. Suddenly, Lightning coach Jon Cooper had a huge decision to make.
The Tampa Bay video coaches thought the play was offside, but their replay angle was from the end zone and unclear. Was there white space between the puck and the blue line? Should Cooper challenge?
If Cooper challenged and the video review upheld the goal, the Lightning would take a penalty for delay of game, put the dominant Avalanche power play on the ice and risk digging a 2-0 hole.
Cooper went with his gut.
“I don’t know completely how it all works, but from an end zone angle, the guys inside were like, ‘I can’t tell if that’s white or if it’s grainy,'” Cooper said. “I’m like, ‘Well, let’s go with the white.’ And it turned out to be offside.”
The Lightning fell behind 1-0, anyway, when forward Gabriel Landeskog scored on the power play at 8:19. At that point, the Avalanche had scored nine straight goals going back to the overtime winner in Game 1.
But then Cirelli made an incredible play by kicking the puck up to his stick on the rush. He cut in on goalie Darcy Kuemper and …
“I fumbled it,” Cirelli said.
Cirelli never really shot the puck. But Kuemper was fooled, the puck slid past him and the game was tied 1-1 at 13:03.
Then forward Ondrej Palat finished a give-and-go with center Steven Stamkos at 14:54, and the Lightning had a 2-1 lead, their first lead of the series.
How key was that? Well, each team entered the game 6-1 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when leading after the first period.
“I think that just settled everything down,” Cooper said. “Not that our team was in panic or anything. It just gave you a little bit of, like, exhale. ‘OK, we got one.’ …
“The response was outstanding by the group, which we needed, and then the puck started going in the net for us. And so, sometimes you need that break, that goal. We got it, and we took off from there.”
The Lightning took a 5-2 lead, chased Kuemper and extended it to 6-2 later in the second.
Game over. The Lightning cut the Avalanche’s series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is here on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS).
It’s easy to say that this is what the Lightning do.
It’s true that they got blown out 5-0 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round and rebounded to win 5-3 in Game 2, that they were down 3-2 in that series and won in seven games.
It’s true that they lost the first two games to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final and were behind 2-0 in Game 3, and they came back to win that series in six.
It’s true that Stamkos said this after the 7-0 loss in Game 2 on Saturday: “You’ve got to move on, man up as a team, as a person. Our team is going to do that. Let’s get back home in front of our fans, and let’s see what we’re made of.”
But even the Lightning, with all their championship mettle, have to breathe and believe.
“The first couple games, we were down early in the game,” Stamkos said. “We were chasing, and it feels like you’re just chasing the puck the whole game. When you have the lead, you have some more confidence as a group. You see some plays start to go your way, and all of a sudden, you get your feet beneath you, and it’s almost like you just feel lighter out there.
“It was a much better start to the game that gave our group some confidence, and when you start to feel that good, you start to see the results, and everything just seems to be going your way. I think that was the difference early on.”
We’ll see. That might turn out to be the difference between a short series and a long one.