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Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
The NHL season is still not over.
The Tampa Bay Lightning fought off elimination with a 3-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final at Ball Arena in Denver on Friday.
The compelling win by the two-time defending Cup champs sent the series back to Amalie Arena in Tampa for Game 6 on Sunday, with the Avalanche leading the series 3-2.
If Colorado wins, it’ll be the organization’s first Cup since 2001. If Tampa Bay wins, it’ll force a deciding Game 7 back in Denver on Tuesday.
The B/R hockey team took in all the action and put together a list of takeaways from Friday’s game. Scroll through to see what we came up with and leave a thought or two of your own in the comments section.
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Ondrej Palat was a seventh-round draft pick in 2011.
In fact, no fewer than 207 players were selected before the Lightning called his name.
But not too many of them have had the impact he’s had, particularly when it matters most.
The game-winning goal scored by the 31-year-old winger Friday night was the 11th of his playoff career with Tampa and set up what could be a particularly compelling swan song to his time with the two-time defending champions.
Palat will be an unrestricted free agent July 13, and the Lightning are already right up against the salary cap for 2022-23, meaning this could be his final run with the team.
The Game 5 winner came with 6:22 left in the third period and broke a 2-2 tie when Palat snapped a centering pass from Victor Hedman through Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper.
It was his 11th goal of the playoffs and his 48th in 137 postseason games.
“I thought we played a good game. A great road game,” he told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan after the win. “It was a great play. [Hedman] found me, I had an open net and I was lucky enough it went in.”
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AP Photo/David Zalubowski
There’s a reason these Lightning have won the Stanley Cup.
The two-time defending champs had their championship grit, heart and determination on full display throughout Game 5, just as they have throughout this year’s run in particular.
Tampa Bay never faced anything beyond a 1-0 deficit while winning eight straight series in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 playoffs, and it only played one elimination game—Game 7 against the New York Islanders in last year’s Eastern Conference Final—in going 32-14 overall.
The Lightning have been much less dominant this year, however, going down 3-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round before winning two straight and trailing the New York Rangers 0-2 in the conference final before rattling off four straight wins.
If they go on to win the Cup, it’d be the most elimination games won by a champion since the 2013-14 Los Angeles Kings won six, including a rally from being down 0-3 against the San Jose Sharks in the first round .
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In spite of the 3-1 series deficit, the Lightning arrived at Game 5 having outscored Colorado 10-9 at even strength through four games.
Where the biggest problems came were on special teams.
The Avalanche had outscored Tampa Bay 6-1 in power-play situations, but things weren’t quite so one-sided Friday.
The Lightning scored one power-play goal in four chances and just as importantly kept Colorado off the scoresheet during its two opportunities with a man advantage.
Nikita Kucherov scored with assists from Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry during Tampa Bay’s four-on-three power play at 8:10 of the second period, and the Lightning killed off a high-sticking penalty called on Ross Colton eight minutes later after also killing a tripping call against Stamkos in the first period.
Kucherov’s goal was his eighth of the playoffs and sixth on the power play but also his first since the Eastern Conference Final against the Rangers.
The Avalanche are still 6-of-15 (40 percent) on the power play in the series, while Tampa Bay improved to 2-of-18 (11.1 percent).
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AP Photo/Jack Dempsey
As a whole, Kuemper has played well in this series.
He’s made 116 saves on 129 shots across five games, registered a shutout in Game 2 and was particularly steady in the face of a 17-shot barrage during the first period of the Game 4 victory that gave the Avalanche a commanding 3-1 series lead .
And he looked sharp early Friday, particularly with the glove hand.
But there have been moments where things haven’t looked so good.
Two of Tampa Bay’s three goals in Game 5 came on shots that Kuemper got a piece of but could not stop. Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta beat him with a slap shot from the right-side boards that trickled through in the first period, and Palat’s game-winner in the third hit him before sneaking through his pads across the goal line.
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“He was OK,” coach Jared Bednar said after the game. “Would like to see him get the first one. Otherwise, I thought he battled hard.”
This came four days after he was pulled in Game 3 after allowing five goals on 22 shots in Tampa Bay’s 6-2 win. And now that the Lightning have sent the series back to Tampa Bay for Game 6, the pressure on the 32-year-old will only increase.
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AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Any level of confidence maintained by Tampa Bay fans heading into Game 5 likely centered around one player: goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
And now that we’re heading to Game 6, it’s not likely to change.
The 27-year-old picked his 63rd career playoff victory in his 98th start with a 35-save performance that once again solidified his status as the league’s best money goalie.
He’d created the foundation for that claim across the Lightning’s initial two Cup runs, including shutouts in five straight series-ending games. But he’s added layers as the team has taken the long way to this year’s final, including rallies from 3-2 down against Toronto and 2-0 down against the New York Rangers.
Vasilevskiy allowed just five goals in the final four games against the Rangers and four in the last two against the Maple Leafs.
And he’s been stellar again since an embarrassing 7-0 loss in Game 2 against Colorado, stopping 106 of 113 shots (.938 save percentage) in the three subsequent games.
In fact, in four elimination games since 2020, he’s 4-0 with a 1.75 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage.