It’s funny the way life develops around you sometimes. My entire life, I’ve been a natural writer. Words came easy, numbers were always a bit of a nightmare. I only learned as an adult I had dyscalculia (basically dyslexia but with numbers) and that’s probably why I struggled to learn basic math functions.
Somewhere along the way, though, I got really interested in the numbers hockey provided. I got pretty into the analytics movement of baseball during the now-famous “Moneyball” era and then translated that into my hockey fandom.
Trying to make sense of the chaos of hockey in numbers just fascinated me and if you’re a longtime reader of my work, you already know that it’s become a major part of my hockey writing and I lean on the numbers to do a lot of the story-telling. Data is data, you know?
Then I really got into the industry and got into locker rooms and around an NHL team on a daily basis. The numbers were great, they helped me separate a lot of that stuff from any personal feelings I might have, but the things I learned the most about were the intangibles that non-stats people love to talk about so much.
The heart, the character, the inner workings of a hockey club were all things that just cannot be appreciated from the outside. Every social media team these days makes it look like a club is tight-knit and loves playing together. Like every other workplace in the world, a lot of that is just for appearances; the reality is typically a lot worse.
When I began covering the Avs back in what would be Patrick Roy’s final season as head coach, it was a dysfunctional group that had talent but couldn’t quite put it all together. I won’t get into the history lesson other than to say it was an eye-opening experience and it all prepared me to really appreciate what was to come, which was a slew of Avalanche teams that really clicked and loved playing together.
All of this is the cliff notes version of what we saw last night in Colorado’s 7-0 turbodunking of the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was familiar, it was fun; we’ve seen a lot of those types of games the last few years as the Avs ascended to the league’s upper echelon of teams.
What made it different, of course, was the stage and opponent.
It was one thing for the Avs to drop back-to-back 7-1 scores in Games 4 and 5 to eliminate the Arizona Coyotes from the Edmonton bubble back in 2020.
It’s a completely different animal to drop a 7-0 score on the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
In Game 2.
After two days off.
The two full days between Game 1 and 2 gave a lot of oxygen to a few storylines, including Tampa Bay’s inevitable acclimation to the altitude and Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and his staff’s ability to pick apart video and gameplan to take away Colorado’s avenues of success from Game 1.
As the Lightning looked gassed by the middle of the second period while trailing 4-0, it was clear those stories never came to fruition. No, the stuff from this game that I specifically want to get into here came in the third period.
With the game sitting at 5-0 and the Lightning on an early power play in the third period, I suppose in theory a Tampa Bay goal could have sparked some life or maybe been the beginning of a historic comeback, but really it was just everyone trying to get through the game and to the Florida portion of this series.
What caught my eye came on that power play. With 50 seconds gone, Andrew Cogliano helped disrupt a passing attempt just enough that the puck squirted to the center of the ice. Cale Makar jumped on the puck, took a quick look around, and exited the zone with speed and Cogliano flanking him.
This is the end of a shift. In a 5-0 hockey game. While short-handed.
Instead of just clearing the puck down the ice and going for a change, Makar attacked. He saw an opening and attacked. The instincts kicked in.
Makar cruised down the ice next to a player whose hand had surgery on it last week and probably couldn’t shoot if he even wanted to. For some reason, Victor Hedman committed to taking the pass away.
To recap, Hedman, one of the world’s greatest defenders, committed to removing the passing lane to a player with a broken hand who had already been ignored once in the game in this exact situation (Josh Manson’s goal to make it 2-0 was nearly identical coming into the zone) in favor of giving the highest-scoring defenseman this postseason and a guy who scored 28 goals during the regular season a one-on-one look at your goaltender. This really happened!
And when Makar unsurprisingly smoked one past Andrei Vasilevsky to make it 6-0, the entire sequence struck me as incredible. Not just for the reasons mentioned above, but Makar didn’t celebrate much beyond some fistbumps and a nod of the head in Cogliano’s direction. This game was already won, but they weren’t about to let the champs off the mat.
The Avs smelled blood early in the game and attacked. They smelled blood late in the game and they attacked. If Cooper was hoping Vasilevsky would use a low-event third period to build back some confidence heading into Game 3, it backfired when Makar scored two goals to make it 7-0 and he scored in two different locations. Just one more thing for the Lightning to worry about.
To tie this all together, this was about Colorado’s killer instinct, a thing some teams just never quite develop. This was about Colorado’s emotional maturity, a thing developed only by the heartbreak of multiple “what if?” seasons in which they let golden opportunities for deep postseason runs slip through their fingers.
Everyone knows the sands of time wait for no man, no team. Colorado had finally gotten to this moment. That it was against this team, the Cup champs? Just one more thing to get amped for. There has been healthy respect for the Lightning, but clearly this Avalanche team isn’t afraid of Tampa Bay in the slightest.
Watching Colorado’s swagger in the third period of a blowout was telling. They could have been trying to be the Globetrotters. They scored twice simply because they could. They never let Tampa Bay feel good about themselves, which led to the other side of this coin.
Watching Tampa Bay’s stunning emotional meltdown as the game wore on was just as telling as Colorado’s approach when the game stopped being competitive on the scoreboard.
The Lightning won back-to-back Cups on the back of a relentless pursuit for greatness. If the other team couldn’t push them hard enough, Tampa Bay pushed themselves. They conquered the mental side of the game as much as anything else. Even when they were being outshot, outchanced, outplayed, they were often not outscored and right in the thick of the action. They were built for resiliency.
They’ve always been a group with a certain sense about them. They aren’t afraid to mix things up when they get chippy. They don’t give anything free, they back down from nobody, and they worry about no tomorrow. It is only winning the day, the hour, the minute, the moment. That’s the objective.
Their resolve is what has helped them carve through low-scoring, back alley brawl-style closeout games. They muck, they grind, they make no mistakes. They force you into their trap and punish you for trespassing.
In Game 2, we saw Corey Perry doing typical Corey Perry things, but it was everyone else engaging in the nonsense that was so striking. We saw similar outbursts of rage and frustration from St. Louis and Edmonton leaders. Those guys, especially the Oilers, are pretenders, however.
Tampa Bay is the real deal and watching them go to pieces in Ball Arena was striking. We just hadn’t seen this group get punched in the mouth quite like the Avs were doing to them and they reacted like a teenager lashing out for not getting that Pepsi brought to them in a timely fashion.
It was raw. It was revealing.
On the other side, the Avalanche packed up a 7-0 win, put it in the rearview mirror and promised itself to get back to work. Game 3 is the next objective.
How much will what happened last night dictate what happens next? The answer to that question will go a long way to determining which of these groups is the next to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.