Lightning has faced a better version of themselves

Denver – Except for a minor miracle, there will be no Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay this summer.

There are no three historical peats.

No boat parade.

Also, it must be said, there will be no flaw.

If the first four games of the Stanley Cup Final taught us anything, it’s this:

The best team is the winner.

It’s been a long time since anyone had to say that here. And there is no shame, and there is nothing wrong with Lightning admitting it now.

After winning 11 consecutive postseason streaks – the third longest streak in NHL history – Lightning has finally reached a better version of themselves.

Colorado is young, fast, skilled, deep and hungry. They’re looking like a team on a crusade after losing four in a row to a lower-seeded team in last year’s playoffs. Sounds like anyone you know?

Lightning defense Eric Cernak (81), goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevsky (88) and left winger Pierre-Edward Bellemare (41) take a moment to collect themselves after the Colorado scored equal goals in the game at 1-all Wednesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In the meantime, the Lightning has been weakened by the salary cap, battered by injuries and appears to have exhausted their post-season good fortune allowance.

Now, you might think I’m jumping the gun. Lightning has, after all, shown a remarkable tendency to survive when logic suggests otherwise. They came from behind against Toronto, won four games in a row against Florida, and rushed for four games in a row against New York.

So why can’t they win three in a row against Colorado?

Because an avalanche is a different kind of monster. They have stars in the front and they have stars on the blue line. They came out on the trading deadline and got the kind of sandpaper players that Tampa Bay excelled at finding. The only place Colorado doesn’t live up to Tampa Bay is in the net, yet Darcy Quimper played brilliantly for most of the action of Game 4.

Speaking to reporters in Tampa before hopping on a charter flight to Denver, Lightning coach Jon Cooper hinted at the seemingly high number of accidental bounces Colorado has had in the series. He said this in the context of explaining that lightning has benefited greatly from those outages in the past.

“What comes is all around you,” Cooper said. “Eventually we’ll make our game and we’ll get our game, but that’s the way the game goes, and you can’t mess with it. You turn the page and turn.

“So that mountain is a little higher. Well, at least we are still climbing.”

The truth is, Colorado has dominated the pace of this series from the very first minutes. Other than the second period of Game 1 and a large part of Game 3, the avalanche was on the offensive.

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There were stretches where lightning temporarily slowed them down, but it often looked as if the avalanche was just one shift away from utter chaos.

When an avalanche needs to score a goal, they tend to hit it. They eliminated two Tampa Bay lead in Game 4, and dominated overtime in Games 1 and 4.

They are imposing their will on Tampa Bay in ways that Toronto, Florida, and New York did and could not. Sure, Lightning might have had some pretty loathsome gameplay in the previous rounds, but they didn’t blow a lot of leads and didn’t lose many close matches.

Cal Makar was better than Victor Hedman, Nathan McKinnon was better than Nikita Kucherov, and Jared Bednar was better than Cooper.

The ball is stuck at the top of the net as avalanche center Nazim Kadri (91) scores the winning goal in overtime and beats Lightning goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) and defender Mikhail Sergechev (98) in the fourth game.
The ball is stuck at the top of the net as avalanche center Nazim Kadri (91) scores the winning goal in overtime and beats Lightning goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) and defender Mikhail Sergechev (98) in the fourth game. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Good. These things happen. Maybe just this month, maybe this is the new world order in the NHL. Either way, Lightning is still on a historic path. They were better than every team in the NHL in 2020 and 2021. Turns out they were also better than every team in 2022.

Except for one. Except for Colorado.

Is this column premature? Yes, it is. Lightning still has Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevsky, Hedman, Kucherov, and a few other players and tough cases. They still have a chance to win game 5, after which they will go home in game 6.

Yes, it can happen.

It rarely happens in a Stanley Cup final.

The last 34 teams who were late in 3 matches to 1 in the championship round lost the series. That’s 34 teams over the more than 75 years of Stanley Cup Finals. You have to go back to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1942 to find the only team that came back from losing 3-1 in the last round. (Those papers were actually 3-0 down when they started their comeback.)

So trust Lightning in Game 5, if you’re so inclined. They certainly deserve the benefit of your doubt.

Just don’t be too disappointed if they fail to make it happen. When you’ve won as much as you’ve won in Tampa Bay in recent years, there’s no shame in succeeding in the end.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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