TRAIKOS: Avalanche take Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in overtime

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DENVER — It was moments before the puck was dropped for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, when a sold-out crowd at Ball Arena suddenly began chanting “We want the Cup.”

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Considering the series had not yet begun, it seemed like a premature demand — and maybe a tad bit preposterous.

For the past two years, that 37-pound shiny piece of hulking hardware has belonged to the Tampa Bay Lightning. And if you polled most objective hockey fans, they would probably tell you that a three-peat was in the cards. It still might be. But with a 4-3 overtime win in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series — compliments of Andre Burakovsky — the Colorado Avalanche at least showed why they might be the ones to end Tampa Bay’s reign.

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“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty,” said Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar. “We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.” 

That legacy probably won’t come easy. Neither will the dynasty.

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If Game 1 was any indication, nothing in this series is going to come easy. 

These teams, which are the best that the NHL has to offer, put on a show in a back-and-forth battle on Wednesday night. Though sloppy at times, it was evenly matched and lived up to the hype. Bank on this series going the distance. Though who’s going to come out on top is anyone’s guess.

Nothing against Montreal or Dallas, whom Tampa Bay had beaten in the past two finals, but the Lightning had never faced an opponent as offensively talented or as deep defensively as the Avalanche, which finished with the best record in the West this year and had swept two of their series and lost just two games en route to the final.

“We have our keys of why we’re here,” said Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon. “It’s not an accident. We didn’t just get a bunch of good bounces and win. We’ve been playing really well and earning all the victories and earned our rest.”

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Colorado, which had been sitting at home for eight days waiting for Tampa Bay to book their ticket to the Cup final, could have been forgiven had they come out of the gates looking to shake off some rust. Instead, it was the Lightning — particularly goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy — that showed early signs of sluggishness or altitude sickness.

Either way, this might have been one of Vasilevskiy’s worst games of the playoffs. It certainly was his worst start — and nothing like we’ve seen out of the defending Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

A bad-angle shot in the opening minutes somehow beat Vasilevskiy and rang off the far post. Shortly after, Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen fired a wrist shot that sneaked underneath the arm of the lanky goaltender, with Gabriel Landeskog sweeping the loose puck over the goal line for the game’s first goal.

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Less than two minutes later, Colorado made it 2-0 on a goal from Valeri Nichushkin courtesy of a poor clearing attempt from Victor Hedman. When have you ever heard that said before? It was that kind of night from Tampa Bay.

Though Nick Paul snuck behind Colorado’s defence and cut into the lead, the Avalanche made it 3-1 at the end of the first period with two Lightning players sitting in the penalty box.

For any other team, it might have spelled an early end to the night. But for Tampa Bay, which had trailed 2-0 in the Eastern Final to the Rangers and were down 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 to the Maple Leafs in the first round, it was nothing new. 

This is a team that routinely plays its best hockey when its back is against the wall. They don’t quit. In what has become a season-long slogan, they just find a way.

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In the second period, the Tampa Find-A-Ways did just that.

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With Vasilevskiy finally settling in, the Lightning mounted its comeback. Ondrej Palat made it a one-goal game on the kind of play that only a superstar like Nikita Kucherov can make. Skating into the offensive zone, Kucherov deked around one defender and then fed a no-look, backhand pass towards the net that landed perfectly on Palat’s waiting stick.

Forty-eight seconds later, Tampa Bay defenceman Mikhail Sergachev tied the game with a seeing-eye shot from the point that Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper never saw.

From there, both teams hunkered down and played as though the next goal would be the winning goal. After a scoreless third period, that’s what happened, as Burakovsky ended the game at 1:23 in overtime, when he one-timed a pass from Nichushkin that beat an out-stretched Vasilevskiy.

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