‘The right team won the game’: Lightning begin quest for threepeat out of sync

DENVER – As he rode the elevator down from the press box, the barn still loud and shaking from a hometown overtime winner, Colorado Avalanche icon-slash-executive Joe Sakic said what everyone was thinking: “Great hockey game.”

And again: “Great hockey game.”

Of course, Sakic — the most recent captain in this town to hoist the Stanley Cup — is biased.

But he’s not wrong.

From drop to pop, Game 1 was a thrill ride. Elite skill and speedy game-breakers on full display. A comeback and a counterpunch. And a raucous, pompom-waving, Blink-182–singing home throng that never relented. Much like the game’s breakneck tempo.

A few more like Sakic’s squad’s 4-3 overtime victory, and hockey could crown a new champion.

Heck, even Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper had to concede that “the right team won the game” on Wednesday.

“The crowd is going nuts. They’re all jacked up,” said Cooper, digging a 1-0 series hole for the third time in these playoffs. “This a different team. We’re not used to seeing them. They play with an extreme pace.

“But our group, we should’ve handled that a little bit better.”

The Lightning flew up to the mountains only to dip its toe in the water.

Tampa began its threepeat bid tentative and out of sync. Some sloppy early zone exits and sluggish legs had the champs playing on their heels and from behind. The Bolts needed to rally out of 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to force a fourth period.

Colorado pressured with purpose and attacked in waves, drawing a 5-on-3 power-play (on a questionable Anthony Cirelli trip of Cale Makar) and pouncing on neutral-zone turnover to draw first blood.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos wondered if his group began too tentative. Like a seasoned heavyweight, Tampa has a penchant for feeling out its opponent, getting a sense for its weaknesses before throwing weight.

So, while the Lightning were easing into the night, the Avs were storming downhill.

“It’s a hell of a hockey team over there, and we knew they were going to come out hard. They did,” Stamkos said. “Maybe a tough call looking back to give them a 5-on-3, but we battled to tie the game up.”

Colorado took the puck away 17 times. Tampa just four.

“There was probably some more turnovers than we’re used to,” Alex Killorn said. “Especially playing a team with as much talent as they have, you don’t want to give them those opportunities.”

No, sir.

Funny thing. Even though the Lightning did not submit its best game “by a country mile,” as Cooper phrased it, the champs were one shot away from stealing this one.

Nikita Kucherov wasn’t executing well until, in a flash, he was dipsy-doodling around No. 2 D-man Devon Toews and saucing a tap-in for Ondrej Palat. Mikhail Sergachev didn’t have his greatest showing either, but he sifted a smart point shot 68 seconds later and tied the game.

At that point, a rare Lightning fan amidst a bowl of burgundy stood up, spun around and addressed the laptop jockeys in the Ball Arena pressbox above him.

“Media, are you watching?!” screamed this gentleman in the Brayden Point away sweater and holding a domestic tin of beer. “I hope you’re watching! That’s what the champs do!”

Indeed, it is what they do.

“They scored two quick ones,” Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen said. “Kinda shocked us a little bit.”

Precisely no one should be shocked by now.

The Lightning trailed the Maple Leafs thrice in Round 1. They dropped the opening two games in New York in the semis.

They don’t panic. They adjust.

“It comes from experience,” defenceman Zach Bosgosian explains. “We’re a veteran group. We’re a confident group. And no matter what situation is thrown on us, we feel like not really much has to change within the room.”

Sergachev shrugged off Colorado’s wicked speed (“We’re playing fast as well”) and his own costly turnover.

“It’s the usual stuff. We lost Game 1s before. It’s a series,” Sergachev reasoned. “We’ll take a day off tomorrow and just chill, clear our heads and practice. Go out at Game 2.

“Nothing changes for us. We’re still a confident group.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed three first-period goals for the first time in his playoff career.

Cooper has his back, though: “I thought he was dialed in. The first one, moving screen, so that was a tough one for him. The second one, maybe [he should’ve stopped]. But I thought he was probably our best player tonight.”

• Injury roundup: Colorado forwards Nazem Kadri (thumb) and Andrew Cogliano (finger) are considered day-to-day. Neither participated in Wednesday morning’s practice.

Tampa’s Brandon Hagel (illness) did not participate in practice Tuesday but was deemed well enough to play in Game 1.

• Quote of the Day.

When the league brought quadrilingual Pierre-Édouard Bellmare to the podium, a PR rep announced that the player would first take questions in English, then answer a few more in his native tongue.

“Which one?” Bellmare deadpanned.

Once the English queries wrapped up, the Frenchman fielded some in Swedish, naturally.

• Rough night for Tampa’s typically excellent shutdown line.

The Hagel–Cirelli–Killorn trio was outshot 9-3 and outscored 1-0 at 5-on-5.

Victor Hedman got caved in, too. Shots were 12-4 and goals were 2-1 in favour of the Avalanche with the Norris finalist on the ice at 5-on-5.

• Point skated 18 minutes, registered an assist and a takeaway, and won most of his draws (56 per cent) in his long-awaited return.

“Was Brayden Point the Brayden Point before his injury? Probably not. But that is his first game in well over a month, and we played the fastest team in the league. So, it’s a tough one to jump into, but I thought he did great,” Cooper said.

“Listen, he’s a warrior. He’s gonna gut it out,” Stamkos added. “It was just great for him to get back, and great and for our team to see him back out there. I thought he played fine.”

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