They come at you in waves, this Avalanche team.
Length-of-the-rink speed that puts even experienced opponents on their heels. Four lines who can explode onto the score sheet. A power play that has carried momentum from the previous round. And a no-frills, detail-oriented defense that doesn’t allow any breathing room.
Did we mention the speed?
Moving like it had rocket boosters attached to its skate blades, the Avalanche overwhelmed the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, scoring early and often in a commanding 7-0 win at a raucous Ball Arena.
The Avalanche are two wins from its first Cup in 21 years, two wins from ending the Lightning’s two-year reign over the NHL, two wins from putting an exclamation point on the franchise’s reclamation and two wins from possibly beginning its own era of dominance.
Such lofty thoughts shouldn’t be dismissed.
That’s how good the Avs played to take a 2-0 series lead and, well, how lethargic, tired and worn out Tampa Bay appears to be.
Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar scored two goals apiece, two of five Avalanche players who had at least two points. Josh Manson, Andre Burakovsky and Darren Helm also scored.
The series shifts to Tampa for Games 3-4 on Monday and Wednesday, respectively. The Avalanche was 7-0 on road ice in the first three rounds, the longest road winning streak to open a postseason since the 2012 Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings won their first 10 games.
Since 2010 (not counting the “bubble” postseason in ’20), a team has led the final series 2-0 eight times and hoisted the Cup six of them, the exception being Vancouver in ’11, and only the Canucks were pushed to a seventh game.
Only a total collapse would keep the Avs from winning the Cup. Who sees this team in its current form losing four times in the next five games?
The Avalanche struck quickly for a 1-0 lead. J.T. Compher drew a roughing penalty on Tampa Bay’s Ryan McDonagh 61 seconds into the game. From the right half-wall, Burakovsky centered a pass that Nichushkin — left alone in front of the net for some reason — slammed past Andrei Vasilevskiy for his seventh goal of the postseason only 2:54 in.
Five minutes later, it was 2-0 when Manson, unable to pass across to Andrew Cogliano, wristed a shot past Vasilevskiy. The goal showed Tampa Bay’s shocking neglect for details. The Lightning’s three forwards were below the Avs’ goal-line and then McDonagh made a haphazard decision to pinch, leading to the odd-man rush.
Less than six minutes later, it was 3-0 when Mikko Rantanen’s slap shot from the right circle was turned away by Vasilevskiy, but right to Burakovsky for the goal. Again, the Avs had a man completely open in front of the goal.
The building was buzzing.
The Lightning was listing.
And the Avalanche was awesome.
Tampa Bay wanted a better start … it was down two goals less than eight minutes into Game 1. Tampa Bay wanted to be assertive offensively from the hop … it had one non-threatening shot on goal in the first 10 minutes. And Tampa Bay wanted to pick up its collective pace … the Avs wouldn’t allow it.
Much to the Avs’ credit, their collective foot remained on the figurative gas pedal in the second period. Were they aggressive offensively? Yes, but not in a reckless way. Were they on-point defensively? No doubt.
The lead stretched to 4-0 at 4:51 of the second when Rantanen forced a Lightning turnover behind the Tampa Bay goal and centered to the high slot where Nichushkin’s one-timer beat Vasilevskiy. Helm made it 5-0 off a break that ended with a wrist shot that beat Vasilevskiy above the glove.
Avalanche goalie Darcy Kuemper didn’t have to be spectacular, stopping 12 shots through two periods as the Avs clamped down in the neutral zone, preventing free entries by the Lightning’s forwards. The Avs’ penalty killers continue to do great work; Tampa Bay’s power play is broken through two games and Makar scored a short-handed goal to make it 6-0 early in the third period. Makar added a power-play goal to put the Avalanche up by a touchdown with 10:11 remaining.
Can the Lightning hit the reset button on its charter flight back home Sunday morning? Of course.
In the last round, Tampa Bay was down 2-0 to the New York Rangers and won four consecutive games to keep its three-peat alive. The Avs are better than the Rangers, though. Much better, as Saturday night exhibited.