TAMPA — Complete the job or roll the dice in a winner-takes-all, one-game showdown with the two-time defending champions.
On the heels of Friday’s 3-2 victory for the Lightning — in a game that featured another clutch goal from Ondrej Palat and another clutch performance from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy — all eyes turn to how the Avalanche will respond to this latest loss, just the fourth in the post-season to go against 15 wins already on the ledger.
Everyone knows the Lightning are a tough out and have shown they have the heart of a champion.
What we don’t know is if the Avalanche are ready to put those three seasons of disappointment from a series of second-round losses fully behind them.
All season long, the Avalanche have taken strides to reach this point. Now that they’re on the precipice of having their names engraved on Lord Stanley’s mug, can they put together a good enough effort to finish the job?
“That’s what you’re trying to do. We’ve had a heck of a season to this point, job’s not done, so there’s a tremendous amount of focus and determination still left in myself and our team,” Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar told reporters before the team departed for Florida. “You are here, it’s supposed to be fun. it’s easier for some guys to enjoy it more than others. I mean, I know how much our guys want it now, they’ve worked for it.
“So, there’s a certain amount of stress and anxiety that you have to try to put out of your head, so you can bring your best performance. Like I said, everyone (deals with) it differently, but our guys have been doing a nice job with it thus far and I expect it to continue.”
It’s not like the Avalanche played poorly in Game 5, missing out on an opportunity to wrap this series up on home ice in front of a crowd that was ready to sing Small Things on a continuous loop into the wee hours of the morning.
There were a few breakdowns in the defensive zone and the offensive attack was mostly stymied by Vasilevskiy. The only two goals to beat him were a rebound goal for Valeri Nichushkin and a Cale Makar shot he initially stopped but caromed in off the left skate of Lightning defenceman Erik Cernak, who was engaged in a battle with Nichushkin.
Otherwise, Vasilevskiy was light’s out, locked in and determined to help his team keep its season — and title defence — alive.
Because Colorado lost four consecutive games to the Vegas Golden Knights in the second round last season after holding a 2-0 series lead, there is always going to be a segment of the Avalanche fan base that isn’t ready to take the next step.
But the Avalanche have been changing the narrative throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs and with one more victory, this group will walk together forever.
As great as the atmosphere was inside Ball Arena on Friday, a case can be made that going back to Amalie Arena could be a benefit for the road team — even with the Lightning being so dominant on home ice.
The Avalanche are 8-1 on the road during the Stanley Cup playoffs and they’ve been known to simplify their collective game when they need to.
“I don’t know if it’s easier in any sense. I think we just have a good mentality going into the games and we trust in our team and the process that it takes to win,” said Avalanche defenceman Josh Manson. “So when we go into the games on the road, it doesn’t change our mentality. We go in, we prepare the same way and we’ve had good results so far.”
Colorado didn’t play with as much speed in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa as they did during the first two games at Ball Arena and there were some definitive signs of the Lightning clamping down defensively in Game 5 as well.
The Avalanche will be looking to pick up the pace and try to generate a higher volume of shots on goal and an enhanced quality of scoring chances as the series resumes.
“They lock everything down, they crowd the net in their own zone, so they try not to get too spread out,” said Manson. “And then in the O-zone, they crash the net and they’re opportunistic, so it’s a good recipe for the playoffs because you can kind of withstand and withstand and withstand and then you get your break and you go and you make the other team pay.
“I think that’s why they’ve had success here over the last few years is it’s a good recipe. It’s a tough team to play against. For us, we just need to keep on the gas the whole time and try and wear them down because they’re going to play that style. They’re going to block shots, they’re going to get in lanes, they’re going to compact it down to the net, so we just got to keep on the gas the whole time and you can’t stop.”
There was some positive news for the Avalanche on the injury front on Saturday morning before the team flew to Tampa, with Bednar reporting that Nichushkin and J.T. Compher came out of Friday’s game fine, and that speedy winger Andre Burakovsky made the trip with the team to Florida and is an option to return to the lineup after missing the past three games with a suspected hand injury.
Staving off elimination has become old hat for the Lightning, who seem to be able to find the required level of urgency whenever they need to.
Now it’s up to the Avalanche to see if they can match — or even exceed that level.
“That’s something you just kind of have to find. You have to have that desperation because it’s the finals,” said Manson. “You can’t look at the amount of games that we have left. You have to be desperate every single game, and I that’s something that we’ve talked about.”
There has been an emphasis on the depth of the Avalanche roster, but in Game 5, it was the fourth line of the Lightning that had a solid outing.
The impact may not have been readily available on the scoresheet, but the trio of Pierre-Édouard Bellemare between Corey Perry and Pat Maroon had another strong outing, spending ample time in the offensive zone on cycle shifts.
For the Avalanche, you get the feeling that top centre Nathan MacKinnon could be on the verge of breaking out offensively, recording 20 shots on goal during the past three games of the series.
MacKinnon has one goal and four points through five games and while he’s certainly been effective and noticeable at both ends of the ice and has shown flashes of brilliance, he has yet to truly put his stamp on this series.
The strong checking of the Lightning has played a role in that.
While Bednar has openly embraced having MacKinnon go head-to-head with Anthony Cirelli, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper changed the matchup for a good chunk of Friday’s game to Nick Paul — knowing that Cirelli (arm) is among the laundry list of guys playing through pain.
MacKinnon is getting plenty of looks at both even strength and on the power play, but there are times when he appears to be pressing a bit — which is a natural emotion when an individual is so close to achieving a lifetime goal.
This isn’t to suggest MacKinnon has to do it alone, especially with Nazem Kadri looking more comfortable in his second game back after suffering a broken thumb.
But even with a strong supporting cast around him, a signature performance from MacKinnon might just be enough to bring the Avalanche to the promised land.