Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar (8) scores on Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) during the third period in Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Saturday, June 18, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/John Locher)
DENVER (AP) — Marinate on this for a quick moment: Colorado has 11 goals in the Stanley Cup Final so far, and not one from star forward Nathan MacKinnon.
The always-pushing-the-pace Avalanche are clicking on all cylinders, even with MacKinnon’s scoring held in check and Nazem Kadri sidelined by a thumb injury.
This is a bunch that comes at you from all directions — no matter the name on the back of the jersey. They’re a constant blur of burgundy-and-blue that gets fast break after fast break, scoring chance after scoring chance.
Along with it, they have a 2-0 lead over Tampa Bay in the best-of-seven series, with Game 3 in Tampa on Monday night.
“Certainly the fastest team that we played,” Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve got to find a way to slow them down.”
How, precisely? “Putting pucks in areas where you can neutralize their speed and not turning the puck over — not giving them freebies,” Stamkos said. “It’s no secret they’re a very fast team.”
Colorado has scored at least seven goals four times in this playoff run, the latest a 7-0 rout in Game 2. They’re one of only seven NHL teams who have recorded that many seven-or-more goal games in one postseason.
On top of that, the Avalanche became the first NHL team to tally 11 or more goals through two games of the final since they themselves accomplished the feat in 1996.
Coach Jared Bednar chalks the offensive fireworks up to one big reason — rest. While the Lightning had to grind through a tough six-game series with the New York Rangers, the Avalanche got an extended breather after a sweep of Edmonton.
“We’ve been trying all year to balance the work/rest ratio,” Bednar explained. “It’s important. … Our team just seems to be really focused, dialed in and they’re hungry and they want to win.”
A different player rises to the occasion each game, too. Like Andre Burakovsky scoring the OT winner in Game 1. Or Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar each recording two goals in Game 2. They’ve found a way to score early and often on Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, who’s one of the best goaltenders on the planet.
Speed really can make a difference.
“We think that’s how we have to beat them,” Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson said of pushing the tempo. “For us, we can’t think that we’re under their skin. We can’t think anything like that. We’ve just got to keep going and just have that mentality that doesn’t stop.”
Colorado’s performing all the gritty tasks as well. Take Darren Helm, for example: He leads the playoffs with 84 hits, including 22 in the finals. He also had a goal in Game 2, his second of the postseason.
“A beast,” Makar said of the veteran center. “He’s so driven.”
There’s also Darcy Kuemper and his 16-save shutout Saturday night. He joined Patrick Roy as the Avalanche goaltenders who’ve recorded a shutout in the Stanley Cup Final (Roy accomplished the feat in 1996 and twice in 2001 as Colorado captured its two Stanley Cup trophies).
“They’re playing at an elite level right now,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We are not. … We have to elevate our play.”
MacKinnon has two assists so far in the series. He’s realized that he can’t always be in the starring role. He can, though, star in the role he’s in. In this case, it’s winning faceoffs, dishing out hard hits and being such an offensive force it requires Tampa Bay to keep constant track of him.
“Goals, it doesn’t matter for him,” Manson said. “Whether Mac is scoring or not, he’s driving the play, he’s wearing guys down, he’s forechecking, he’s above pucks. He’s playing unbelievable.”
Same goes for Mikko Rantanen, who had three assists in Game 2 for the Avs. It was his fourth straight home game in which he recorded two or more points. That matches the Quebec/Colorado franchise record in a playoff year, which was set by Nordiques great Peter Stastny in 1982 and equaled by MacKinnon in 2020, according to NHL Stats.
“We know as a team that we get rewarded offensively when we play our best game defensively,” said Makar, whose team is 7-0 on the road so far in these playoffs. “It’s just coming to that kind of realization every single night. They’re obviously a great team.
“They’re going to throw everything they have at us the next game. We just have to be ready — and ready to bring it back on them as well.”