One hand might have slipped off the Stanley Cup in Denver, but the Tampa Bay Lightning may still re-establish their grip.
Refusing to lay down, the Lightning answered consecutive losses at altitude with a 6-2 blowout victory over the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night in Game 3, improving their standing to now trail 2-1 in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.
Tampa Bay’s top line of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Ondrej Palat led the way versus more manageable matchups on home ice, notching two points apiece. With two primary assists, Kucherov became the fourth player in league history to surpass 25 points in three consecutive postseasons. Wayne Gretzky, Mike Bossy, and Bryan Trottier are the others.
Anthony Cirelli, Nick Paul, Patrick Maroon and Corey Perry had the other goals for the Lightning, who now rather remarkably lead the series in total 5-on-5 goals 8-7 despite immense struggles at times in Colorado.
Perry became the first player in NHL history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Final with a fourth different franchise with his insurance marker on the man advantage, while Maroon now has goals in all four series on his routinely-travelled path to the Stanley Cup Final.
Andrei Vasilevskiy settled in after an unfortunate start to the series as well as the first period of Game 3, morphing once again into the feared netminder that he’s expected to be down the stretch. He made 37 saves on 39 shots and reduced the Avalanche to one goal-scorer, captain Gabriel Landeskog. Vasilevskiy’s counterpart, Darcy Kuemper, was lifted in favour of Pavel Francouz after allowing the Lightning’s fifth goal on 13 shots.
If there was significant adjustment from the Lightning in Game 3, it was well disguised.
Aside from having to pull Brayden Point out of the lineup after his brief return from injury, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper stuck with what’s gotten the franchise two Stanley Cups, trusting that the Lightning would land a counterpunch. More advantageous matchups certainly helped with the top line, which caught more middle-six opponents and far less of the Avalanche’s No. 1 pair of Cale Makar and Devon Toews.
One thing that did stand out from the Lightning was their ability to work two-man games to open up scoring chances with possession of he puck in the offensive zone.
On three occasions, including the ice-breaking equalizer with Cirelli, the Lightning created goals by working quick give-and-goes to freeze Avalanche defenseman. Maroon’s marker seemed most representative of the two-man play-making strategy used to expertly break down the opponent.
But none were as pretty as the perfect dissection Stamkos and Palat had performed earlier.
Tampa’s win improves the Lightning to 8-1 on home ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the lone loss coming to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1. The victory also marked the Avalanche’s first loss on the road in the playoffs. They had won the previous seven outings in Nashville, St. Louis, and Edmonton.
If there’s a primary concern for the Lightning, who should feel validated by the victory even despite their unmatched track record of success, it’s the mounting injury issues.
Most alarming, Kucherov exited the game late with an apparent lower-body injury after being hit by Devon Toews while crashing to the ice.
Nick Paul was also injured after an awkward collision. He was clearly laboured, but did stay in the game, managing to score a massive goal with his knees barely bent while appearing to be testing out the knock.
The extent of either injury is unclear, but the Lightning risk becoming dangerously thin if either Kucherov or Paul is to miss time, or be significantly impacted by the injuries.
If Colorado is facing a decision ahead of Wednesday’s Game 4, it’s between the pipes.
With less separating Kuemper and Francouz than most goaltending tandems, the Avalanche could comfortably turn to his backup without much hesitation. Head coach Jared Bednar did not tip his hand one way or the other but did relay the obvious to reporters, saying he didn’t think Kuemper “had a good night.”
There was no more clear difference between the teams in Game 3 than the situations in goal. With Vasilevskiy rounding into form, it’s imperative that Bednar makes the right decision between Kuemper and Francouz if the Avalanche’s series lead will survive the trip to Tampa Bay.
More from Yahoo Sports