Billed as a dream Stanley Cup Final between the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and Western Conference juggernaut Colorado Avalanche, the opening game of the series exceeded expectations, with Andre Burakovsky’s overtime winner giving the challengers an early lead over the incumbent holders.
History will remember this game as a hotly contested affair but it’s already evident that the Avalanche’s speed advantage, and how the Lightning respond on the counterattack in turn, will dictate the outcome of the series.
Colorado’s blistering tempo is its defining characteristic and it was a point of emphasis for Tampa Bay’s head coach Jon Cooper, who noted that his opponent is the fastest team in the league, playing with extreme pace. They are the most fun team in the NHL to watch and they’re often associated with their hyper-speed gear on highlight-reel plays from Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar.
It went beyond the spectacular plays on Wednesday night: the Avalanche did all the small things right, they forced the Lightning into several turnovers (17-4 differential), outshot the champs 38-23, and their superior pace paid off in both facets of the game.
You could attribute three of the Avalanche’s four goals directly to their pace advantage. Colorado took control during the opening stages of the game, swooping in on the forecheck and forcing rushed exits. Bowen Byram has arrived ahead of schedule this postseason and the 21-year-old has emerged as a bonafide shutdown defender with top-pair offensive chops, too. Byram entered the rush, dished the puck off to Mikko Rantanen and alertly continued to drive towards the net, occupying Ryan McDonagh’s attention. There was a clear shooting lane for Rantanen as Tampa Bay’s defensive stalwart Anthony Cirelli got caught puck-watching and the puck squirted through Vasilevskiy’s pads, where Gabriel Landeskog beat Erik Cernak for the tap-in.
Colorado’s speed forced Tampa Bay into some untimely turnovers, with its second goal as a prime example. Valeri Nichushkin – who was an overall menace in Game 1 – led the forecheck by applying pressure against Zach Bogosian. Bogosian tapped the puck back to Victor Hedman, but with Landeskog bearing down, Hedman wired a pass up to Nick Paul, who couldn’t handle the puck as Makar converged.
MacKinnon tracked back for the pinching Makar, found the loose puck and fired it over to Nichushkin, who was waiting in the unguarded slot. Vasilevskiy was beat through the wickets, a save he ordinarily makes, but you can’t fault him when the Avalanche forced a turnover and got a clean shot in a prime scoring location.
Nichushkin, MacKinnon and Landeskog out-chanced their opponents 19-3 at 5-on-5, outshot the Lightning 6-1, and controlled 93.89 percent of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick. This line may be impossible to suppress, especially if the Lightning are making mistakes in their own zone.
Burakovsky’s overtime winner was also a byproduct of the Avalanche’s speed melting the Lightning’s composure. Mikhail Sergachev, who is playing his best hockey of the postseason, lobbed a bouncing puck through center ice and it was picked off by JT Compher. Compher’s initial shot was gamely blocked by Hedman, but there was no one to pick up the trailers. The puck ricocheted to Nichushkin, who fired it over to Burakovsky for the game-winner, with Cernak and Nikita Kucherov barely in the frame.
Tampa Bay overcame its internal heartbreak after a crushing first-round loss in 2019, and has been noted for its calm disposition befitting of a champion throughout the postseason. At least for one night, the Avalanche rattled the Lightning, and separated them from their defining qualities.
During the 2022 postseason, and for stretches of the regular season, the Lightning adapted a counter attacking style against teams with superior possession and shot-creation numbers. It worked against the Maple Leafs and couldn’t have gone any better against the Panthers. Tampa Bay can adapt to any style of play theoretically and it probably knows it has to win the series on the strength of its goaltending, power play, and counter attacking abilities.
Alex Killorn tried to spring Brandon Hagel on a breakaway three minutes into the first period, but the puck was batted away. It was a sound strategy as it led to Tampa Bay’s first two goals – the other one coming on a Sergachev point shot that Darcy Kuemper should’ve stopped.
Paul temporarily stopped the Avalanche onslaught as a result of some opportunism. Logan O’Connor lost a puck battle against Hedman, who fired the puck up the ice immediately. It caught Byram and Erik Johnson completely flat-footed as Paul raced past the Lightning duo, then tucked the puck past Kuemper. It went against the run of the play, but perhaps provided a template for the Lightning’s offense moving forward.
McDonagh blocked a shot and immediately hit Kucherov with an outlet pass, operating a two-man weave with Ondrej Palat. Colorado’s forwards were late to track back in a 2-on-2 scenario and Kucherov made an incredible move on Devon Toews before finding a crashing Palat for Tampa’s second goal.
It’s not an entirely hopeless proposition for the Lightning, going against a team that has the supreme pace and shot-creation advantage, but it will need some more spectacular individual efforts on the rush to keep the series close, if Game 1 portends future outcomes.
Tampa Bay is used to having a larger margin of error to operate with, in large part due to the heroics of all-world goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Vasilevskiy exists in a different tier than players at his position, and he may be the most clutch player in all of North American men’s sports. And no offense intended to the 2020 Stars or the 2021 Canadiens, but the 2022 Avalanche are far and away the most talented team the Lightning have faced during their dynastic run.
It became readily apparent on Wednesday night that Vasilevskiy needs to be close to flawless for the Lightning to offset the Avalanche’s superior pace and the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner had an off night relative to his standards.
Speed kills, and the Avalanche have a habit of making their opponents look like they’re skating in quicksand. Jared Bednar and Cooper will make their respective adjustments, but it appears that the Avalanche’s speed advantage, combined with how well the Lightning’s counterattack and goaltending hold up, will dictate how the rest of this dream Final ought to play out.
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