Despite failing to close out series, Avalanche show no signs of unravelling

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 35 saves and Ondrej Palat scored the game-winning goal to help the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 3-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche and force a Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Final.

DENVER — Cale Makar isn’t a big believer in the concept of momentum carrying over, especially during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So while you can be sure the Colorado Avalanche aren’t thrilled about the fact they were unable to close out the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Friday night in Game 5, there is no cause for concern and no signs of unravelling.

Absolutely no panic was being shown by the Avalanche in the aftermath of the 3-2 loss — and there’s a good reason for that.

This wasn’t an example of a team being wound too tightly with a chance to eliminate a team that’s been an incredibly tough out during the past three playoff runs.

This was an inspired effort, not a no-show or anything close to resembling a dud.
There were a few self-inflicted wounds, lapses in defensive-zone coverage specifically, but nothing egregious.

Nothing that would suggest the moment was too big for a group that was building for this opportunity during the previous three playoff runs that ended in second-round disappointment.

This was a one-shot game that came right down to the wire and included the Avalanche rallying in the third period to tie the game, even after Nikita Kucherov had put the Lightning up by a goal in the second period with a rocket of a one-timer during a 4-on-3 power play.

When Makar scored a goal 2:31 into the third period to even the score, the fans inside Ball Arena erupted in anticipation.

But the Lightning locked things down and Ondrej Palat proved to be the hero, powering home a one-timer of his own that just trickled over the goal line.

The Avalanche are 7-1 on the road during the Stanley Cup playoffs and they won’t be the least bit intimidated about heading back to Amalie Arena with another opportunity to complete the job.

“Yeah, I mean, it's (hard to) carry momentum game to game when there's a day in between, and you don't know what the guys are doing. We’ll see,” said Makar, who chipped in another goal and an assist to give him 29 points, strengthening his candidacy for the Conn Smythe Trophy. “Obviously, they have a lot of experience in moments like this. Not necessarily being down in finals, but at the end of the day, we had a great opportunity tonight and unfortunately that one's on me for losing that one, not at least getting to OT. So onward and upward.

“Obviously the toughest challenge in sports is to knock a team off. We have another great opportunity to do the same thing in Tampa.”

Makar continues to live up to the billing as the humble superstar.

He had another strong effort, yet there he was in his post-game remarks, shouldering a good chunk of the blame for being in the penalty box for the second goal for the Lightning and missing an assignment on the game-winner.

“I wouldn't put that all on Cale. I thought we were a little bit loose on the entry and then a little bit of talk goes a long way to curing that,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, responding to Makar’s assessment. “We ended up with three guys covering their two at the net and then when they made the play to the open man up top, which I think was (Victor) Hedman, or whoever was coming down that left side, two guys in the front of the net went to him. A little bit of communication there probably solves that.”

This was an outstanding hockey game, with the last two teams standing going back and forth in a game that featured numerous glorious scoring chances, a number of bone-jarring hits and some incredible drama.

Even with the gutsy performance, the Lightning still must win two more games to avoid being dethroned by the Avalanche.

“I mean obviously it stings. We’ll wake up, we’ll be ready to go, watch some film and see where we can get better and see where we can tighten things up to make it harder for them,” said Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog. “We’ll bounce right back. Listen, we would’ve loved to finish it off but at the end of the day it’s a seven-game series. It’s not supposed to be easy and it’s not going to be. I hope the fans feel the same way. The sun’s going to go up again and we’ll be right back at it.” 

One thing to keep an eye on is the health of Avalanche winger Valeri Nichushkin, who had a goal and an assist to go along with five shots on goal and three hits on Friday. 

Following the game, Nichushkin was seen returning from the X-ray room with a bag of ice on his right leg. Battling through pain is standard operating procedure at this time of the year, so we probably won’t know the severity of the injury until the morning skate on Sunday. 

Nichushkin has been a force throughout the playoffs and he’s up to nine goals and 15 points in 19 games — including four goals and six points in the series — to go along with his diligent defensive play and exemplary work on the penalty kill.

Prior to the game, Bednar made it clear he wanted his group to embrace the emotion and feed off the nervous energy.

By taking two minor penalties in the opening seven minutes, it was tough to get the offence going on but by the end of the night, the Avalanche had managed to send 37 shots on goal on Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“It's kind of hard to judge the start, I didn't love our start. It was okay,” said Bednar. “We were checking and playing the right way. It didn't seem like we got on the attack as much as we wanted. But again, the two penalties kind of, the result of penalties early in the game for us, and kind of takes you a little bit longer to get going. After that, I thought our guys played hard and played well. Again, we’ve got to find a way to capitalize on a chance or two. We had a couple breakdowns that led to scoring chances and goals against in a pretty tight game.”

Goaltending was one of the storylines to watch going into the series, and while Bednar thought Darcy Kuemper played well enough and battled, there was one goal he thought his starter would have liked to have back — the first-period slapper from Jan Rutta that snuck through the five-hole that gave the Lightning their first of three one-goal leads.

“Yeah, it was just a little bit of a knuckler. Happens,” said Kuemper, who finished with 26 saves. “You know, you do things the right way, that's all you can do. Obviously you don't want to let any goals in. But it happens.

“Be ready for the next game. We won there last time so we've just got to go out there and play our game and stay even-keel through the highs and the lows. We would have taken a 3-2 series lead any day, so we're in a good spot here.” 

Bednar was asked about the second-period tripping call to Makar that gave the Lightning a 4-on-3 power play that led to Kucherov’s goal. Some folks in attendance wondered aloud if Palat might have sold the call, but Bednar didn’t take the bait, though he did express some disappointment. 

“That was a hard-fought game. There's lots going on. I didn't love that call,” said Bednar. “Just because there was no intent there. I don't even think he was checking that guy. Looked to me like he kind of tripped over a stick. It's a tough one. They got their only power-play goal on that one. So that hurt, stung a little bit but it is what it is. You've got to roll with the punches.” 

Makar wasn’t wasting much time voicing his displeasure about the tripping call either. 

“Yeah, I don't know if I haven't seen it yet. It’s obviously up to the refs discretion, varies game by game, but at the end of the day, we're just going to have to battle through that. So there's not much to it,” said Makar. “I'm not here to talk about the refs. There's going to be discrepancies game to game with different people. It is what it is. 

“At the end of the day, you can't get your emotions taken into that. And for me, that doesn't happen very often. But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to refocus.” 

Rolling with the punches and refocusing has become a common theme for the Avalanche throughout the season and that carried over into the playoffs, as Colorado has yet to lose consecutive games. If that trend continues, the Avalanche will claim their first Stanley Cup since 2001 on Sunday night in Tampa. 

“Especially, being the back-to-back champs, we know it’s going to take our best game in order to close this one out, so we’ll be better,” said Avalanche defenceman Devon Toews. “It was always going to be that fight. It’s a fight every time. “We’ve just got to bring our best.”

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