Twice in the hours after his team’s 3-2 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar’s message about the volume of scoring opportunities remained the same.
Friday night: “I didn’t mind them.”
Saturday morning: “(We) created a significant amount of chances, probably enough chances to win the game.”
The industry website Natural Stat Trick charted the Avs with 25 scoring chances and five high danger opportunities. The expected goal total was 1.72, so the Avs essentially got what they earned analytically, held under three goals for only the third time in 19 playoff games.
The Avalanche has at least 30 shots on goal in each game of the Final, including 37 on Friday.
But as the Avs regroup after Game 5 and prepare for Sunday’s Game 6 in Tampa, should Bednar feel content with the quality of chances?
Yes and no; a cop-out answer, but hear us out.
Yes: Long-range shots by defenseman Cale Makar led to both goals, via Valeri Nichushkin’s rebound tap-in and a deflected rebound off Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s skate.
No: Was goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy ever screened? Did he fail to see a high-quality shot?
The “no” part of the equation should be one area of emphasis for the Avalanche, which works on screens and deflection daily in practice.
It is critical for the Avalanche to re-ignite its fore-check, which sustains zone time, which tires out the Lightning defensemen, which makes them penalty-prone, which produces power-play chances, which leads to opportunities to screen Vasilevskiy. And it is also necessary to have more effective zone entries to create rush chances.
The Lightning tightened the vice grip on the Avalanche throughout Game 5.
“Definitely tighter checking, I think, in this game than probably the previous games,” Bednar said.
Tampa Bay had 33 hits, including 10 by its defensemen.
“When you get to this point, everyone talks about goaltending and you’ve got your scorers, but if you don’t have a core (of defensemen), it’s tough to move on,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve got some big, strong cats back there.”
The tone was set in the first period. Centers Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri carried into the zone and were double-teamed, resulting in turnovers. Kadri was checked by defenseman Victor Hedman along the side boards. And with 3:30 remaining in the first, Nichushkin’s pass found MacKinnon in full flight, but he was halted by Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s terrific open-ice hit.
The Avalanche tried to carry the puck in the zone to start the second period, but it appeared its plan was altered entering the third period. Compher chip-in. Toews chip-in. Bo Bryan dump-in. Two more Toews dump-ins. Two Kadri dump-ins. And a Nichushkin chip-in.
Once the Avs control possession in the Lightning zone, it can begin to utilize its best player (Makar), who is a wizard while skating along the blue line and probing for a shooting lane and also charging into the circles for close-range shots.
Makar’s 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) are the most by a defenseman in the postseason since the New York Rangers’ Brian Leetch in 1994 (34 points). In the last 40 years, only three defenseman have scored more points in a playoff year than Makar — Edmonton’s Paul Coffey (37 in 1985) and Calgary’s Al MacInnis (31 in 1989).
Coffey, MacInnis and Leetch all won the Stanley Cup; Makar is one win away. MacInnis and Leetch won the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP; Makar is one win away from being a deserved winner of that award.
Should Makar, who has Bednar’s complete trust to start the rush, be even more active in Game 6, which will be played on lousy ice, making it more difficult for long tape-to-tape passing? Yes, yes, 100 times, yes. This needs to be a Cale Makar Game. Charge up the middle of the ice to draw the Lightning defensemen toward him and then make a high-percentage pass to the flanks to streaking wingers and centers. A combination of Makar on the move and using the dump-in/chip-in game could be the Avs’ best strategy to avoiding a Game 7.
“It’s a tough team to play against,” Avs defenseman Josh Manson said. “We just need to keep on the gas the whole time and try and wear them down. You can’t stop.”