Nick Paul’s gutsy winner gives Lightning life: ‘I was coming back for sure’

Steven Stamkos, Patrick Maroon and Ondrej Palet had a goal and an assist each and Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside 37 shots as the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Colorado Avalanche 6-2 to cut their series deficit to 2-1 in the Stanley Cup Final.

TAMPA – The architect of the Tampa Bay Find-A-Ways — as some in this steaming, stormy town have taken to calling the local hockey club — was recently asked how bleak their threepeat bid looked on May 12.

The Toronto Maple Leafs had the champs on the ropes in Round 1. The Lightning were down 3-2 in the series and 3-2 in Game 6. Halfway through Period 3.

Blood was in the water. But panic was not in the air.

“My take at the time was not so much it was bleak. It was challenging. It also presented a great opportunity for us,” Lightning GM Julien BriseBois reflected, calm as everyone under his purview.

“This is what this final is going to be. Colorado is going to be a heck of a challenge. They are a phenomenal team. They have talent at every position. They have probably a bunch of all-time great players when its’s all said and done. They present a formidable challenge for us. At the same time, it’s an incredible opportunity for our guys.”

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The Lightning returned home after the most one-sided shutout in Cup Final history “We could have played for three weeks, and we’re not getting one [goal],” coach Jon Cooper said of Game 2’s blowout) and, for the third time this series, fell behind to the Avalanche.

Give up nine unanswered goals in the championship, and the mood can get bleak quick.

And yet, this was another chance for the resourceful champs to stay the course.

The Bolts got the next one from Anthony Cirelli, and another from Ondrej Palat. Finally, after 136-plus minutes, a lead.

A foothold to start climbing out of another deep hole, their third significant one in four series.

“We knew it was pretty much a must-win game for us,” captain Steven Stamkos, who set up Palat and sniped a spin-around beauty himself. “I thought we played like it tonight.”

In dishing the Avalanche their worst loss of the postseason, 6-2, the Lightning threw 10 different skaters on the scoresheet. They chased starter Darcy Kuemper and got to backup Pavel Francouz as well.

The Bolts were detailed and direct. Engaged in all three zones.

Their marquee names executed smart offensive plays, they were physical and feisty, and they buttoned up shop in their own zone, out-shot-blocking their opponents 27-12.

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“Total team effort. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn. You need to block a shot, there’s not one person on this team that’s scared to do it. They’ll get in front of it. You saw [Corey Perry] tonight, he almost took one off the face, takes it off the shoulder. That just shows that everyone on this team is willing to do what it takes to win,” Nick Paul said.

“It’s winning hockey is what it is. Limiting turnovers, moving the feet, hard on the forechecks, creating loose pucks. And from there, we were able to keep building momentum.”

Stamkos said the bench held its collective breath in the first period, when Paul fell awkwardly after this shove from Josh Manson and hobbled down the tunnel:

Returning in Period 2, his skating stride painful to watch, Paul scored on his very first shift back.

“It was uplifting,” Cooper said.

“Guys are out there obviously banged up, especially at this time of the year, but in true hockey player fashion, he sucks it up and comes out and scores the eventual game-winner,” Stamkos added.

“You can see how valuable he is for our team and all the little things that he does, and obviously he’s scored a couple big goals in the finals for us. Game 7 in Toronto. He’s had some great moments these playoffs.”

After he scored, Paul took another trip down to the corridor to get whatever ails him checked out.

But he came back again and finished the game. There was never a doubt in his mind.

“No, I was coming back for sure,” Paul said.

Would anyone be surprised by now if the Lightning come back, too?

“I still think we got better, honestly. I thought it was a really good response tonight. We’ve got a good crew in there, and we take pride in there,” Patrick Maroon said.

“Play like it’s your last game, right?”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Brayden Point missed more than a month of action due to a lower-body injury, played games 1 and 2 in Denver. Then he was nowhere to be seen Monday. His replacement, Riley Nash, skated a team-low 7:01. Cooper was mum when asked if Point has suffered a setback.

Equally concerning is the health of Nikita Kucherov after this frightening cross-check from Devon Toews:

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Cooper was asked for his thoughts on the check.

“When you get asked questions like that, you’re looking for an answer that everybody in the building already knows,” the coach replied. “It’s a contact game, but guys know what they’re doing. Smart, savvy players know what they’re doing with their stick, and we all saw it.”

Updates are expected Tuesday, but forward depth is a concern in Tampa.

• Hey, Nazem Kadri. Wanna play Game 4?

• Even with the Lightning scoring their first 5-on-4 goal, the special-teams battle has been severely lopsided.

Colorado already has five power-play markers and a shorthanded goal. The Avs zip the puck around and look deadly on nearly every man-advantage.

“Special teams is huge, but I thought our five-on-five play was a lot better tonight,” Stamkos said. “So we have to stay disciplined. They’ve got a great power play.”

• Corey Perry became the first player in NHL history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Final for four different clubs (Ducks, Stars, Canadiens, and Lightning).

• Charles Barkley, a good friend of Cooper’s, told ABC that he called commissioner Gary Bettman directly to secure a pair of tickets for Game 3. Baller.

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