DENVER – Ondrej Palat raised his stick high, calling for the puck as he found himself alone between the hashmarks.
Palat always seems to find himself in the right spots, and with Tampa Bay facing elimination Friday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning forward came through in the clutch.
Palat broke a 2-all tie with his 11th goal of the postseason with 6 minutes, 22 seconds remaining in the third period, giving the Lightning a 3-2 win over the Avalanche at Ball Arena.
The Lightning still have a tall mountain to climb, but their drive toward three straight is still alive. Their Game 5 victory wasn’t their best, but it was what they needed to survive to play another day.
The Lightning refused to let the game get away from them early – as had happened in the first two games in Colorado – and sent a Ball Arena crowd looking to celebrate a home-ice Cup championship unsatisfied.
Colorado tied the score 2:31 into the third as Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar’s rebound went off Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s skate and past goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Palat then took a feed from Lightning blueliner Victor Hedman, who drew attention drifting to the goal line, needling a pass through traffic to a wide-open Palat between the circles.
The Lightning’s special teams came through, as a man advantage that was 1 for 16 in the series broke through with a goal at the most important time.
Nikita Kucherov scored his first goal of the series on a 4-on-3 power play, ending a methodical man advantage by rifling a one-timer from the high slot past Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper.
The Avalanche were playing a stout penalty kill, consistently blocking Lightning shots attempts. It wasn’t until Steven Stamkos bluffed a shot from the left circle, then fed Kucherov up top where Kucherov launched a one-timer through Corey Perry’s screen off the post and into the back of the net.
The Lightning desperately needed a special teams spark after manufacturing just one shot on goal on two previous power plays, especially after Valeri Nichushkin tied the score earlier in the period.
The Lightning got a boost from an unlikely source as defenseman Jan Rutta opened scoring with his third career playoff goal in 48 career games.
Rutta, a light-scoring stay-at-home defenseman who was a healthy scratch for most of the Lightning’s first-round playoff series win over Toronto, skated through the neutral zone after taking a cross-ice feed from Perry and had an open shot approaching the top of the right circle.
Rutta rifled a 95-mph slap shot from near the boards, beating Kuemper under his glove for his first postseason goal since Game 3 of last season’s Cup final against Montreal, a stretch of 10 playoff games.