DENVER — Jon Cooper told his Tampa Bay Lightning players in the locker room following their Game 1 loss they need to be a lot better to take out the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Final.
After a day of rest, they got to work figuring out just how to do that.
The two-time defending champion Lightning are no strangers to making adjustments and bouncing back in a playoff series. Their biggest test begins with trying to slow down the speedy Avalanche, who have their own tweaks to make in the chess match that has now begun going into Game 2 on Saturday night.
“We’re dissecting the game by zone, by special teams, by breakouts, by forecheck,” Cooper said. “There’s so many different things that go into it.”
Based on a lack of familiarity facing an opponent from the opposite conference, the start of a final is more of a learning process than series earlier in the playoffs, and it took experiencing — and at times getting flustered by — Colorado’s pace for Tampa Bay to know exactly what to expect.
“You can never really understand it until you feel it in the first game like that,” forward Nick Paul said Friday. “They definitely have speed throughout their lineup, and they love to go on the attack and hunt. They make good reads whether they’re trying to dump pucks or when to try and carry it, so you’ve constantly got to be pushing yourself to have a good gap to force them to get the puck out of their hands.”
What to do with the puck was a big focus for each team during practice Friday. After star defenseman Cale Makar failed to put a shot on goal for the first time all playoffs, despite being one of the NHL’s best at doing so, the Avalanche must figure to find a way to put more rubber on Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
They were expecting the Lightning to block a lot of shots, and they did by getting in front of 25 in Game 1. There will be some adjustments, but don’t expect Colorado players to be hesitant about shooting.
“You still have to throw it there,” defenseman Josh Manson said. “You don’t want to just hold on to it and try and find that perfect lane. So, I think we got to just do that: keep moving our feet and throwing it there.”
Getting the puck out of their defensive zone is paramount for the Lightning, knowing what can happen when the Avalanche are on the attack. A major emphasis from the coaching staff is putting speed bumps in the way however possible without taking an unnecessary interference penalty.
“The biggest thing is just making sure you lay body, whether it’s a hard hit, whether it’s a nudge and stand up on them because they transition so quick,” Paul said. “You’re just making reads, staying above guys and trying to force turnovers.”
Each side is concentrating on trying to cut down mistakes.
For Makar, it’s about being better defensively than he was on Nikita Kucherov’s move to set up a goal by Ondrej Palat in the series opener. Fellow Norris Tropy finalist Victor Hedman said in Swedish he needs to be better after a tough night in Game 1.
The Lightning also expect Vasilevskiy to be better after allowing at least one soft goal and perhaps two in the opener. It was the first time he had allowed three goals in the first period of a playoff game in his NHL career.
History indicates Vasilevskiy will bring his best. Tampa Bay is 18-1 after a loss over the past three postseasons, and its elite goaltender has a lot to do with that, stopping 509 of 542 shots for a 1.57 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
“Vasy, his mental strength is out of the world,” Hedman said. “We’re very confident when we have him back there. The record’s not a fluke, but we can’t rely on that either. We just got to go out there and execute our game plan a little bit better than we did in Game and help Vasy a little bit more: Let him see the pucks, he’s going to make those stops. But it helps having the best guy in the world back there.”