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Elliott: Their offense is great, but it’s defense that gives the Avalanche the look of a champion

The Colorado Avalanche are the fourth NHL team to score seven or more goals four times in one postseason run and first to do that in 37 years. They’re the first team since 1996 to score at least 11 goals in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final, a total they padded on Saturday with a 7-0 romp at Ball Arena that left them two wins away from dethroning the two-time defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

Fifteen Colorado players earned at least one point in the first two games of the Final, led by dynamic winger Mikko Rantanen’s five assists and Valeri Nichushkin’s three goals and four points. They’ve made 2021 playoff MVP Andrei Vasilevskiy look mortal in net, though he can’t be blamed for faltering against the high-quality chances that resulted when his teammates abandoned him to face two-on-one breaks. “We left him out to dry,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said.

But the biggest reason the Avalanche can take a stranglehold on the Cup in Game 3 on Monday at Amalie Arena is their smothering defense, which has silenced the Lightning’s big scoring threats and provided a foundation for their own stunning scoring spree.

That they held Tampa Bay to 39 shots, including 16 in Game 2, was as impressive as their ability to play at a consistently fast pace with precise passing that no other NHL team can match. Stamkos has had four shots and no points. Right wing Nikita Kucherov, the scoring leader in Tampa Bay’s 2021 Cup repeat and the top producer in their three-peat attempt, has one assist.

“I thought our checking game was the difference [on Saturday] and that was the reason we scored seven,” said winger Andrew Cogliano, the gritty former Duck who returned from a hand injury to earn two assists Saturday.

“I thought we came out with a purpose. We got to our game. We skated right from the drop of the puck. And we just didn’t let up, really. From the top line to the fourth line I thought we skated, we checked all night. Because of that we broke up pucks really clean. We got odd-man rushes. We played our game right from beginning to end.”

Colorado defenseman Cale Makar on Saturday became the second defenseman in NHL history to score both a short-handed and power-play goal in a Cup Final game, following Boston’s Glen Wesley in 1988. Yet Makar took more pride in his team’s defensive excellence than his individual success.

“We know as a team that we get rewarded offensively when we play our best game defensively. So for us, it’s just coming to that kind of realization every single night,” he said. “Their players are going to find ways to exploit you and we just have to be ready for that. They’re going to throw everything they have at us next game, so we just have to be ready, and ready to bring it back on them as well.”

Colorado is 7-0 on the road; Tampa Bay is 7-1 at home. The Lightning were resilient in erasing deficits against Toronto in the first round and the New York Rangers in the East final, but the Avalanche are a different animal with their speed and committed defense from top to bottom.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper rejected suggestions his team’s struggles might reflect fatigue from three extended playoff runs. “Isn’t that what you want to do? I’d rather be playing hockey than having a five-month summer every year,” he said Sunday before both teams traveled East.

“Not an ideal situation we’re in, but it’s not insurmountable. It just seems like it’s been the playoffs of comebacks all the time. Our room, our margin for error’s not as big as it was a few days ago, but I think we’ve got to get back to our basics and why we’ve had success and focus a little more on us.”

Stamkos acknowledged he and the Lightning didn’t see Saturday’s rout coming. “But in saying that, we have to man up and we have to do better,” he said.

Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, giving up a goal on a shot by Avalanche center Darren Helm, will be back in net despite a 7-0 loss in Game 2.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Where to begin?

It won’t be with a goaltending change. Cooper said Saturday he would start Vasilevskiy on Monday, adding he didn’t think about replacing the Russian goalie when the score became lopsided because he anticipated Vasilevskiy would have refused to leave. Lightning players zeroed in improving their puck possession time, though that’s more easily said than done against the Avalanche’s error-inducing speed and disciplined checking.

“We can be better, we can be quicker with the puck. Turnovers. We can start playing north a little bit faster and once you start doing that we’ll get back to our game,” winger Corey Perry said. “We haven’t played with the puck a lot.”

Tampa Bay might get a break if Colorado winger Andre Burakovsky, who was injured during the second period Saturday and didn’t return, can’t play Monday. Colorado coach Jared Bednar said Burakovsky, whose overtime goal decided Game 1, was evaluated on Sunday and will go to Florida on Monday. If he can’t play, Colorado might be able to bring in No. 2 center Nazem Kadri, who had 14 points in 13 playoff games before he injured his thumb during Game 3 of the team’s sweep of Edmonton in the West final.

The Lightning’s claim to dynasty status comes down to one game. Only one NHL team has erased a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven Cup Final: the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings. The Avalanche have history on their side, planted there with their scoring depth but firmed up by their defense.



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