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Avalanche get rolling early, crush Lightning to take 2-0 lead in Cup final

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Stanley Cup Lightning Avalanche Hockey

Colorado Avalanche right wing Valeri Nichushkin (13) celebrates after scoring against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period in Game 2 Saturday, June 18, 2022, in Denver.

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DENVER – Is this about all the things the Colorado Avalanche are doing? Or is it because the Tampa Bay Lightning have suddenly lost their way and have gone from champs to chumps?

No easy answers in the wake of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night. It was a 7-0 Avalanche blowout that rolled downhill and never stopped until Colorado had taken a 2-0 lead in the series and moved within two wins of its first Cup since 2001. 

And it's safe to say both sides were a little shocked at what they saw in Ball Arena.

"It was exceptional. I thought our guys played hard from the drop of the puck," said Colorado coach Jared Bednar. "We were tenacious on pucks, relentless puck pursuit. It was as close to perfect a game you can get from your players."

As you would expect, Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos was not nearly as impressed.

"You guys all saw what happened. That was unacceptable, especially at this level at this time," Stamkos said. "It's something we need to look at, watch, realize what we did wrong. Whether it's 1-0, 7-0 or 10-0, it's a loss in the playoffs.  There were so many things that were very uncharacteristic of our group tonight."

Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar scored two goals apiece to lead the rout in front of a roaring crowd of 17,849 that spent the night chanting, "We want the Cup." The Avs scored three first-period goals on Andrei Vasilevskiy for the second straight game and cruised home without any sort of Tampa Bay challenge. Goalie Darcy Kuemper had about the easiest shutout you could get in a final, making only 16 saves.

The Avs are the first team since the 1985 Chicago Blackhawks with four games of 7+ goals in the same postseason. And it was the second-largest margin of victory by shutout in the final, surpassed only by Pittsburgh's 8-0 romp at Minnesota in the Game 6 clincher in 1991.

Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon has just one assist in the first two games but has been dynamic on the rush in the Tampa Bay zone as the Avalanche have overwhelmed the Lightning with their speed. The shots on goal in the game were 30-16 as Tampa Bay hardly had the puck for long stretches of the game. Shot attempts were 15-1 in the first 11 minutes and the count for the game was a stunning 60-29.

"Whether 'Mac' is scoring on not, he's driving the play, he's wearing guys down, he's forechecking, he's above pucks," said Avs defenseman Josh Manson. "He's a full, full 200-foot player, and he's playing unbelievable. Goals don't matter for him."

Over the two games, the Avs have outscored the Lightning, 11-3, and outshot them 68-39. Colorado is 3 for 7 on the power play and has a short-handed goal while Tampa Bay is 0 for 6.

Through eight-plus seasons that include four trips to the Stanley Cup Final, it's safe to say Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper has a pretty good read on the pulse of his team. Prior to the game, Cooper said he fully expected a bounceback from his club. It never happened.

"They're playing at an elite level right now. Give them credit. we are not," Cooper said after the loss. "They're two good teams. They're just playing at a much higher level than we are right now and I think it was evident watching that game tonight. So we have to elevate our play. Does it (stink) losing a game like that? For sure. We’re not used to it. It doesn’t really happen to us. But is it going to happen at times? Yeah, it is. You’re just hoping it doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup Final."

Now, the series is far from over. The Lightning, of course, won four straight to overcome the New York Rangers' 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals. But Colorado is obviously a different opponent entirely and the Avs are 7-0 on the road in the playoffs this year. 

Game 3 is Monday night in Amalie Arena followed by Game 4 there on Wednesday. The Avalanche are 14-2 in the playoffs this year and halfway to their third sweep of this postseason. 

Nichushkin, who assisted on Andre Burakovsky's OT goal in the opener, opened the scoring at 2:54 of the first on a goalmouth tap-in of a Burakovsky feed. It came with seven seconds left on a power play after Tampa Bay defenseman Ryan McDonagh went off for roughing.

Colorado made it 2-0 at 7:55 as Manson blew a wrister by Vasilevskiy on a 4-on-1 break and made it 3-0 at 13:52 as Burakovky tapped in a Mikko Rantanen rebound. Nichushkin scored his second at 4:51 of the second and Darren Helm made it 5-0 at 16:26 by beating Vasilevskiy to the top corner.

Makar scored a short-handed goal at 2:04 of the third period, burning Vasilevskiy with a wrist shot on a 2-on-1 break, and closed the scoring on a power-play goal at 9:49. He joined Boston's Glen Wesley (1988 vs. Edmonton) as the only defensemen in the history of the final with a power-play goal and short-handed tally in the same game.

"I feel like we played to our identity to a 'T' tonight," Makar said. "Obviously, we had some good goals and stuff like that. But at the end of the day, we know next game they're going to bring their best. It's always the next game is the hardest. It was a little bit of a weird one tonight. Obviously, we're getting opportunities but guys were able to able to capitalize, so that's the good part.”

The Lightning had zero offensive push and Tampa's offensive stars have been complete no-shows. Nikita Kucherov did not have a shot on goal in Game 2 while Stamkos had one. Hedman was minus-3 in the game.

Here's one thing Cooper surely knows: His team has no chance at the NHL's first three-peat in 39 years if his star players don't show up Monday night.

“As I said, we have a group that we’ve been able to circle the wagons and respond," Cooper said. "Disappointed in the way the game went tonight, there’s no question, but I’m not questioning our team. They’re ballers in there. So turn the page, move on to Game 3.”

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