A sense of dread washed over me after Tampa Bay’s Game 4 overtime loss that put them down 3-1 in the Stanley Cup Final to Colorado. Game 5 felt eerily similar, with the Lightning scoring first, followed by Colorado tying it off a fortunate bounce, Tampa Bay regained the lead in the second period, and then Colorado tied it within the first few minutes of the third period. However, this time the blown lead in the third period and a complete loss of momentum didn’t come to pass.
It felt as if Colorado would find a way to nab this game just as they did in Game 4. Then, Ondrej Palat found a soft spot in the Avalanche defensive coverage and wired a one-timer to give Tampa Bay the goal they needed to keep their season alive. Hope started to creep its way back into my consciousness.
Can they bring this series to a do-or-die Game 7?
Personally, I’m conflicted. The Lightning hasn’t been the better team this series; they’ve struggled to contain Colorado’s explosive offense, putting them in precarious positions throughout the series. Tampa Bay’s usually solid penalty kill has been downright atrocious in the Final, while Colorado’s average penalty kill (80% entering the series) has been unusually dominant. At 5v5, the Lightning has been out-attempted (282-205), outshot (134-97), and out-chanced both in regular (146-94) and high danger (45-35) opportunities. However, Tampa Bay has outscored Colorado 12-11 at 5v5 but is also riding a 104 PDO while Colorado is sporting a 96 during the series. One can look at that and say, “just stay out of the box, and we should be ok,” but that belies the overarching fact that what the Lightning are doing isn’t sustainable.
A 7-game series is always prone to short bursts of unsustainable stretches that wouldn’t last in the regular season. However, after looking at the numbers, it’s blatantly clear that Andrei Vasilevskiy is the biggest reason why the Lightning is still alive in this series.
Tampa Bay has done just enough offensively to keep themselves afloat, but the underlying process is worrying. Vasilevskiy very well could shut the door, and the Lightning takes advantage of a subpar Darcy Kuemper to win the series, but the chances of that happening are not as high as we’d like to admit.
There is a positive outlook, though. Games 3, 4, and 5 have all been closer than Games 1 and 2. Interestingly, and this is something no one has talked about, Tampa Bay has taken advantage of the Cale Makar and Devon Toews pairing at 5v5 in terms of scoring. The Lightning has outscored that duo 8-4 at 5v5 but has failed to control play to the extent they would generally like (40.2% CF, 43.52% xGF)—again, goaltending has definitively been in Tampa Bay’s favor. These aren’t perfect pictures, but they show a shift in the right direction.
It remains to be seen if it will culminate in a third consecutive championship, but it does provide a ray of hope. The problem is the team they’re up against—Toronto was a difficult opponent to overcome in the first round, but they dwarf in comparison to Colorado’s wealth of talent throughout the lineup, and that’s been the biggest obstacle for Tampa Bay to navigate. Also, considering the sheer amount of injuries the Lightning has endured and it’s a surprise that Tampa Bay is still alive.
That’s what championship pedigree and experience provide—an unbreakable belief in oneself that transcends any rational understanding.
Is it likely that the Lightning will win Game 6 and Game 7? No. Plausible? Yes. But this team isn’t going to lay down and just let the Stanley Cup be handed off. They’re going to fight, they’re going to battle, and they’re going to lay everything on the line because they’re the god damned Tampa Bay Lightning. No team in the salary cap era has done what this team has accomplished this season. No team has faced four 50-win teams in a single postseason, no team since the 1980s Oilers has made three consecutive Stanley Cup finals, no team has faced more adversity this postseason and found a way, and no team deserves a benefit of a doubt more than Tampa Bay.
If any team can find a way to force a do-or-die Game 7, it’s the Tampa Bay Lightning.