It’s hard to believe tonight was the start of the Stanley Cup Final, yet it also feels inevitable that the Colorado Avalanche reached this point. A match-up against two-time consecutive champions Tampa Bay Lightning was sure to be exciting, and we were not disappointed.
The first period
What was sure to be a fast-paced start was hampered slightly by a loose stick and three whistles within the first 30 seconds of the game, but the Avalanche were able to regroup and begin to apply pressure on Tampa Bay. Mikko Rantanen had a good scoring chance which was denied by Andrei Vasilevskiy, nevertheless, it was a glimpse of what was to come from Colorado.
All four Colorado lines were playing hard, proving to any doubters that their rest had not slowed them down in the slightest. The Lightning can’t be underestimated, and Darcy Kuemper made the first of a number of crucial saves he would make this game. Soon after, Colorado had another opportunity to score, but the shot from Valeri Nichushkin hit the post. Darren Helm decided tonight was the night to play the game of his life, getting to the puck all over the ice and creating chances for Colorado.
Unfortunately, Josh Manson was called for holding the stick, and the Avalanche went on the penalty kill at 5:07. Tampa Bay had three power-play goals against the Rangers, so it was essential that the Avalanche killed this one off. Thankfully they were able to do this. Soon after Manson was let out of the box, Gabriel Landeskog scored on a pass from Mikko Rantanen, getting the first goal of the game for the Avalanche and his ninth goal of the playoffs.
The Lightning were unable to answer, with Colorado recording their second goal at 9:23, a much-deserved goal from Valeri Nichushkin. The Lightning had a decent power play earlier, despite the Avalanche killing it off, but it was Colorado who was dominating.
Tampa was able to close the gap when Erik Johnson lost track of the puck, giving an opportunity to Nick Paul who put it past Darcy Kuemper. A single goal difference isn’t ideal, but Colorado had a necessary lead. And with another penalty called on the Lightning, the Avalanche found themselves on the power play.
This turned out to be a 5-on-3 for the Avalanche after Tampa was called for a second tripping penalty. A huge chance for the Avalanche which Artturi Lehkonen made the most of, scoring on a pass from Mikko Rantanen. Once again Colorado regained their two-goal lead, going into the second with 15 shots on goal to the Lightning’s eight.
The second period
The tide turned for the Avalanche somewhat in the second. Tampa started by hitting the post, a lucky break for Colorado. But when both Jack Johnson and Maroon were called for roughing they found themselves in a 4-on-4 situation. Manson is a key player in these moments as he’s a tough defenseman who makes some big hits, so to lose him at this point was not ideal. Nevertheless, the team made the best of the situation.
However, they were soon called for too many men on the ice, putting them on the penalty kill. It’s an unnecessary mistake that can be costly and is certainly frustrating to see in a game like this. Despite their mistake, they had an extremely strong penalty kill with great clearance to get the puck out of their own zone.
Despite their excellent penalty kill and another chance from Nichushkin, they seemed to lose their momentum for a minute that would change the course of the game, allowing the Lightning to score two goals within 48 seconds. Suddenly a two-goal lead had turned into a tie.
The team wasn’t going to let it derail what had been a great game up until now, finding ways to put pressure on Tampa towards the end of the second. They weren’t able to convert any of their chances to goals, going into the intermission tied at three.
The third period
Both teams had a lot to prove in this period; with only 20 minutes left, any goal could be the game-winner. Once again the Avalanche applied pressure that wasn’t quite enough to convert to goals, with both J.T. Compher and Lehkonen missing the net. This was followed by Logan O’Connor going to the box for high sticking, another disappointing penalty as it had followed a really intense and promising minute of play.
Although the penalty kill came at an awkward time, the team did a great job of keeping the Lightning out. Darcy Kuemper made a big save and Valeri Nichushkin was able to get the puck out of Colorado’s zone.
Later on, Colorado had another big chance, when Vasilevskiy lost track of the puck, however, he was still able to get to it. Despite this moment of confusion, he seemed to have recovered from his uncharacteristically unsure play in the first period, making it difficult for the Avalanche to get past him.
This period was all Colorado. Like the end of the second, they had so many chances but weren’t getting them in. They were given an absolute gift at 18:36 when Pat Maroon was called for a delay of game. The power play could not have come at a better time, however every attempt the Avalanche put on the Lightning net was denied. With 36 seconds left in the power play, the game was going to overtime.
A nail-biting faceoff was won by the Avalanche who set the puck up perfectly. Tampa was able to clear, but Cale Makar regained possession of the puck for Devon Toews and Nathan Mackinnon. The power play time expired, and Darcy Kuemper made an absolutely crucial save.
In a beautiful moment of hockey, Valeri Nichushkin set the puck up for Andre Burakovsky, who scored the game-winning goal at 1:23.
It was such a deserved win for Colorado. It was really only a single minute where they had lost control of the game that had cost them their lead, so to get a series lead at home felt like the absolute best outcome.
Andrei Vasilevskiy wasn’t playing as well as we know he can, certainly in the first period. Although he seemed to regain some of his momenta it’s definitely something to watch out for. Having said this, the Avalanche can’t rely on him to play like that going forwards. It was uncharacteristic and I’m sure with a couple of days' break he’ll come into the next game with a lot of focus.
Valeri Nichushkin played incredibly well and he deserved every single point he got, and more to be honest. If he can keep playing like he did tonight he’ll be a real difference-maker for the team and they absolutely need him to be.
The Final continues, Game 2 will be on Saturday, June 18 at 6:00 p.m. MT.