DENVER – They fought, they persevered, they came from behind one more time.
Then the Lightning lost Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals in the first 2 minutes of overtime.
Andre Burakovsky blasted a shot past Andrei Vasilevskiy for a 4-3 victory on Wednesday night at Ball Arena.
This isn’t a disaster. In some ways, it was an encouraging sign.
The Lightning took Colorado’s best shot in the first period, and still turned it into a thrilling game. They looked a little slow, a little tentative and a little sloppy for the first 20 minutes or so, but they also matched the Avalanche’s pressure and speed throughout the second and third periods.
These playoffs have been anything but easy for Tampa Bay. They’ve often been ugly.
But danged if they haven’t also been a thrill-a-minute experience from the moment the Lightning dropped the first game of the postseason (5-0) against Toronto on May 2.
If you’re keeping track, the Lightning had to come from behind to win a Game 6 in overtime against Toronto, then a Game 7 on the road. They dropped the first two games against New York and trailed 2-0 in Game 3 before roaring back to win four in a row.
This time, the Lightning fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 in the first period against a Colorado team that had the best record in the Western Conference and two sweeps in the three rounds of the playoffs.
In some ways, it started off like a replica of the series openers against New York and Toronto.
The Lightning looked like they were a step slower. Just like they did against the Rangers. A heartbeat behind. Just like Game 1 against the Maple Leafs. Vasilevskiy looked strangely mortal. Just as he did in the 6-2 loss to New York and the 5-0 loss to Toronto.
Except this time, the Lightning refused to yield.
Maybe the power play wasn’t clicking and maybe it took Vasilevskiy an entire period to find his footing, but there were the familiar signs of a team that has been making comebacks a way of life.The Lightning just needed an opening. A sliver of a chance.
They just needed Nikita Kucherov.
Trailing by two goals for a combined 19 minutes of clock time, the Lightning got the break they needed when Ryan McDonagh got possession of the puck in the faceoff circle and fired a quick stretch pass to Ondrej Palat. With two Colorado defenders backpedaling, Palat sent the puck to Kucherov as they criss-crossed in the Avalanche offensive zone.
Just when it looked like they had run out of space, Kucherov deftly sent a backhanded pass back to Palat who just tapped it past Darcy Kuemper to cut the score to 3-2.
It was the sign of life the Lightning needed.
Forty-eight seconds later, with Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli perched in front of the net, Mikhail Sergachev sent a wrist shot from 65 feet away that Kuemper did not appear to see.
Just like that, the awfulness of the game’s first 17 minutes vanished. The two soft goals allowed by Vasilevskiy in 5-on-5 situations? Forgotten. The penalties by Sergachev and Cirelli that led to a 5-on-3 power play? Forgiven. The 3-1 deficit on the road? Not so intimidating.
But it all went for naught when a blocked shot early in overtime gave the Avalanche room to move the puck around in front of the net