Lightning win 3-2, deny Avs a chance to win Stanley Cup

DENVER – The Stanley Cup will stay lock and sealed – for now.

The Tampa Bay Lightning spoiled Colorado’s party to hoist the championship and staved off elimination to remain in the hunt for a third consecutive Stanley Cup title, defeating the Avalanche 3-2 Friday evening in Game 5.

Ondrej Palat scored twice, including the game-winner with 6:22 remaining, and Andrei Vasilevskiy was a brick wall in stopping 35 shots in front of a raucous crowd. However, they were reduced to silence after a hard-fought win by the Lightning.

Lord Stanley will head back to Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday night. The Avalanche can still clinch the championship, while the Lightning will need another clutch performance to force a Game 7 in Denver.

“Listen, this is a huge challenge for us,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “An exciting challenge, too. You’ve got to be excited for this challenge and embrace it.”

Jan Rutta opened up the scoring for the Lightning in the first period with a slap shot that snuck right under the glove of Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who was solid despite taking the loss. He stopped 26 of 29 shots.

Nikita Kucherov also scored for the Lightning on the powerplay, which gave Tampa Bay a 2-1 advantage.

Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar scored for Colorado. Makar’s late-third period goal bounced off the skate of Erik Cernak and through the pads of Vasilevskiy to tie it at two. But the Avs, despite outshooting the Lightning for the fourth time in five games, were limited to just two goals just like they were in Game 3.

It set the stage for Palat, who since his postseason debut in 2014, has 12 game-winning goals in the playoffs. And tonight, when it counted the most, Palat came through. He blasted a one-timer through the pads of Kuemper to silence the pro-Avs crowd.

“I thought I played it well, slid over,” Kuemper said. “It just found a little hole.”

Tampa Bay rebounded after an emotional Game 4 loss at home on a controversial overtime goal from Colorado forward Nazem Kadri. The Lightning felt the Avalanche had too many men on the ice. Ironically, a very clear too many men on the ice was called with 2:43 remaining.

The Lightning went on the powerplay and Colorado fought back hard shorthanded, but were unable to muster enough strength to bring the game back to even footing.

It was raining prior to the game and perhaps that was an omen that the Lightning were coming to fight. They got off to a hot start and exemplified they were two-time reigning champions for a reason. They’ve twice rallied from deficits this postseason, against Toronto in the quarterfinals, and overcame a 2-0 hole against the New York Rangers to advance to the Cup Finals for the third consecutive season.

Not only would the Lightning become the first three-peat Stanley Cup champion in nearly four decades if they pull off the comeback, but they would also make history in another, if not more impressive category. The 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs are the only team to win the Cup after trailing 3-1 in a series.

In a sense, one can look at this series as a battle of threes. The Avalanche are trying to capture their third Stanley Cup in franchise history and the Lightning are shooting for three consecutive championships. And now, the Lightning are within one win of nodding this series up at three-a-piece.

The Avalanche, however, have yet to taste defeat in the Stanley Cup Final. They also won in 1996 in their inaugural season after the Quebec Nordiques relocated to Denver. And with the help of Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic, the Avalanche made history.

Both teams knew this wasn’t going to be easy. A majority of NHL observers saw this series going seven game. After the first two entries, it appeared the series could end prematurely. But the Lightning have channeled their inner Rocky Balboa, and have saved their stuff for the final rounds.

“It’s not supposed to be easy and it’s not going to be easy,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “We knew that coming into this. We knew that coming into tonight. … Short memory in the playoffs and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The fight is not over with just yet.

Ryan O'Hara

Award-winning sportswriter from Denver, Colorado.

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