DENVER – The Tampa Bay Lightning weren't the ones who looked like the two-time defending champions in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night.
The Colorado Avalanche, playing for the first time in nine nights, raced to 2-0 and 3-1 leads in the first period by punching pucks past otherworldly goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had allowed just 2.27 goals per game in these playoffs.
“The first 10 minutes, we weren’t our best,” Lightning forward Patrick Maroon said. “We weren’t our best tonight. But I like the finish in our game, though.”
Well, except for the actual ending.
Colorado withstood Tampa Bay's rally to improve to 13-2 in these playoffs and prevail 4-3 on Andre Burakovsky's goal 1:23 into overtime.
The winner came after a bad turnover by Mikhail Sergachev, whose second-period goal tied it at 3.
Home teams have won 64 consecutive Cup Final games when leading by two or more goals, per ESPN. The last team to blow a two-goal lead and lose was the New York Rangers against Vancouver in 1994.
The Avalanche peppered reigning playoffs MVP Vasilevskiy with plenty of pucks in the first period and Ball Arena was rocking, those $1,000 tickets looking like bargains.
The Avalanche scored a whopping 65 goals in 14 playoff games to reach the Stanley Cup Final — their 6.46 scoring average the best in the playoffs in 30 years —- and they netted two more goals in the first 10 minutes of the first period.
The two-time defending champions' pedigree showed up with Ondrej Palat and Sergachev scoring goals less than a minute apart in the second period against Darcy Keumper, who was playing in his first game since May 31 against Edmonton, to knot things up at 3.
It stayed that way until 1:23 into overtime.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper insisted Vasilevskiy wasn't to blame for the loss, suggesting nobody in a Lightning sweater played better than his goaltender who stopped 22 straight shots before Burakovsky's winner eluded his left skate.
“Vassy, obviously, is a difference maker,” Sergachev said. “He is the best goalie in the world. He’s our best player. So he’s a difference-maker and he can steal games, he can win games by himself. He almost did it tonight.”
Vasilevskiy allowed three goals in a first period of a playoff game for the first time in his career, according to NHL Stats.
The Avalanche's legs were both fast and fresh in their first game in nine days and their first Stanley Cup appearance in 21 years.
Throw in the altitude and the Avalanche's attitude, maybe some choppy ice and definitely some uneven play early on from Vasilevskiy, who allowed uncharacteristic goals like the one Valeri Nichuskin put past him in the first period. That puck was the first to go through Vasilevskiy's legs this entire postseason.
These Avalanche may be the upstarts but they're not fazed by the prospect of having to dethrone the two-time defending champions to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.
Their confidence, like the thin air in the Mile High City, is sky high.
“I mean why not?” said captain Gabriel Landeskog, whose goal less than eight minutes into the game opened the scoring. "We’re in the Stanley Cup Final. We’ve earned this spot. We put a lot of hard work in. Obviously, we have a lot of respect for these guys — but not too much.”
Sergachev shrugged off the loss, suggesting there was plenty of good things that happened, like coming back to tie it and skate evenly with the fast Avalanche for much of the night.
“It’s the usual stuff. We lost Game 1s before,” Sergachev said. “It’s a series, so we’ll take a day off tomorrow and just chill, clear our heads and practice, go out at Game 2. So nothing changes for us. We’re still a confident group.”
Lightning longtime captain Steven Stamkos said the key Saturday night in Game 2 is not playing catch-up and chasing the quick Avalanche.
“We'll look to get off to a better start next game and play with the lead a little bit,” he said. “That’s a really good hockey team, they got some exceptional players that can make plays and will look to improve.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said his players now have a feel for how fast the Avalanche play, and that will help them this weekend.
“They come out pretty strong. We hadn’t seen them in a while, so it was nice to get a feel,” concurred Alex Killorn. "They had some incredible players that do a lot of good stuff on the ice, but I think we understand exactly what they are.”
A formidable opponent that might very well keep the Lightning from becoming the first team to win three Stanley Cups in a row since the New York Islanders won their fourth straight in 1983.
Follow Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter at https://twitter.com/arniestapleton