TRAIKOS: Facing elimination, Lightning force Game 6


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DENVER — It’s going to take more than that to knock out the two-time defending champs.

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Facing elimination, the Tampa Bay Lightning lived to fight another day after a 3-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final. But considering that they are still trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, the odds remain stacked against them on completing a three-peat.

Game 6 is in Tampa on Sunday, where Colorado will have another chance to win it all. However, if the Lightning get another performance like this out of goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ondrej Palat, don’t be surprised if this thing goes the distance.

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“It’s impressive what hockey players do at this time of year,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “We’ve been extremely fortunate to be able to do this for three straight years … The excitement and the thrill and all that trumps everything. But there is a time where you’re like, ‘Glad this is over.’ ”

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It isn’t over yet. Not with the way that Tampa Bay responded on Friday.

Facing elimination, the Lightning came out attacking in the first period. They knew they had dug themselves a pretty deep hole by losing three of the first four games. But they also knew that they hadn’t won back-to-back championships by fluke.

The Lightning were down 2-0 to the Rangers in the East final and were a goal away in Game 6 from getting knocked out of the first round to the Maple Leafs. Each time, they had saved their best for when it mattered the most.

Jan Rutta scored his first of the playoffs on a slap shot that Darcy Kuemper should have stopped. Skating down the wing, the lumbering defenceman got all of the shot that seemed to fool the Avalanche goalie.

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It was the only goal in a tightly-contested period that featured three combined power plays, a breakaway and too many blocked shots to count. Nathan MacKinnon had Colorado’s best chance when he was sprung all alone, but his forehand deke went just wide after sliding underneath Vasilevskiy’s pads.

In the second period, the Avalanche tied the game on yet another goal from their playoff hero, Valeri Nichushkin. Again, it wasn’t the prettiest of goals. Although at this time of year, few are. A shot from Cale Makar handcuffed Vasilevskiy, who bobbled the puck onto the waiting stick of Nichushkin, who shovelled it in for his ninth goal of the playoffs — and fourth of the series.

After Colorado and Tampa Bay took coincidental minors, a tripping penalty from Makar gave the Lightning a 4-on-3 man-advantage. That was all it took for their power play to find its groove, with Nikita Kucherov blasting a one-timer to put Tampa Bay ahead 2-1 at 8:10 in the middle frame.

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From there, the team put its hopes and prayers in the hands of Vasilevskiy.

The Lightning goalie hadn’t been his best in this final. But he seems to always save his best for these moments.

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It would be impossible to recount all the stops he made in the final 12 minutes of the second period. There was a breakaway save on Makar. A blocker save on a one-timer from MacKinnon. And that was just during a Colorado power play.

In the third, the Avalanche somehow found another gear and tied the game early in the period.

This time, it was Makar, who has been fantastic all playoffs. And once again, it was another one of those pinball-type shots that bobbled in off a skate, a body and whatever else the hockey gods had cooking in the arena on Friday night.

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Not that the Avalanche didn’t deserve it. Sensing how close they were to finishing off to glory, they put the Lightning on their heels in a way that we have seen for most of this series. It wasn’t just Colorado’s speed. It was their aggression.

And yet, Tampa Bay wouldn’t quit, wouldn’t go down without a fight.

With 6:22 remaining in the third period, the Lightning retook the lead again on a one-timer from Palat. Standing alone in the slot, Palat one-timed a pass from Victor Hedman that Kuemper got a piece of, but just snuck over the goal line. It was his 11th of the playoffs. And it could not have come at better time for the man they call Mr. Reliable.

A too-many-men penalty in the dying minutes squashed any chance at a comeback. Now, the question is whether Tampa Bay can build on this win and come back in a series that many had written off already.

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