DENVER, Colorado — Jon Cooper told his Tampa Bay Lightning players in the locker room after their Game 1 loss that they would have to be a lot better to take out the Colorado Avalanche in the Stanley Cup Finals.
After a day off, they set to work to figure out how to do it.
Two-time defending champion Lightning is no stranger to making adjustments and striking back in a playoff series. Their biggest test begins trying to slow down the fast-moving Avalanche, who must make their own improvements in the chess game that now begins Saturday night’s Game 2.
“We analyze the game by zones, by special teams, by breakouts, by forecheck,” Cooper said. “There’s so many different things that go in.”
Due to an unfamiliarity with an opponent from the opposing conference, starting a Finals is more of a learning curve than a series earlier in the playoffs, and it took experiencing Colorado’s pace for Tampa Bay — and getting nervous at times, to know exactly what she expects.
“You can never really understand it until you feel it in the first game,” said forward Nick Paul on Friday. “They definitely have speed throughout their lineup, and they love to charge and chase. They read well when they’re trying to throw pucks or when they’re trying to carry them, so you have to constantly push 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 Friday practice. After star defenseman Cale Makar failed to score in all playoffs for the first time despite being one of the NHL’s best, the Avalanche must find a way to put more rubber on Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
They expected the Lightning to block a lot of shots and they did it by going ahead of 25 in Game 1. There will be some adjustments, but don’t expect Colorado players to hesitate when shooting.
“You still have to throw it there,” said defense attorney Josh Manson. “You don’t want to just hold on to it and try to find the perfect trajectory. So, I think we just have to do this: keep moving our feet and throw it there.
Getting the puck out of their defending zone is paramount for the Lightning, as they know what can happen when the Avalanche attack. A key focus of the coaching staff is to put speed bumps in the way, but without an unnecessary penalty for disruption.
“The biggest thing is to make sure that whether it’s a hard hit, whether it’s a shove, you’re laying down and getting up because they’re changing so quickly,” Paul said. “You just do readings, stay above the boys and try to force sales.”
Each side focuses on reducing errors.
For Makar, it’s going to be better defensively than Nikita Kucherov’s action to set up an Ondrej Palat goal in the series’ opener. Norris Tropy finalist Victor Hedman said in Swedish he needed to get better after a tough night in Game 1.
The Lightning also expect Vasilevskiy to be better after conceding at least a soft goal and maybe two in the opener. It was the first time in his NHL career that he had conceded three goals in the first third of a playoff game.
History shows that Vasilevskiy will do his best. Tampa Bay is 18-1 after one loss in the last three postseasons, and its elite goalie has had a lot to do with it, stopping 509 of 542 shots for 1.57 goals against average and 0.939 percent.
“Vasy, his mental toughness is out of the world,” Hedman said. “We’re very confident when we have him back there. The record is no coincidence, but we can’t rely on it either. We just have to go out and execute our game plan a little better than in game and help Vasy a little more: let him see the pucks, he’ll make those stops. But it helps to have the best man in the world back there.