DENVER (AP) — The Stanley Cup was in the building and just waiting to be paraded around the ice.
Pack it up. It's heading back to Florida.
The resilient Tampa Bay Lightning spoiled Colorado's party to stay in the hunt for a third straight Stanley Cup title, beating the Avalanche 3-2 on Friday night in Game 5.
Ondrej Palat scored with 6:22 remaining and Andrei Vasilevskiy stopped 35 shots in front of a raucous crowd hoping to celebrate the Avalanche’s first championship in 21 years.
“That’s what good teams do — you find a way,” Lightning forward Corey Perry said. “Keep plugging along. This is fun. This is what hockey’s all about, different guys stepping up at different times.”
Game 6 is Sunday night in Tampa. The Lightning trail the best-of-seven series 3-2.
“Listen, this is a huge challenge for us,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “An exciting challenge, too. You’ve got to be excited for this challenge and embrace it.”
The Cup was all shined up and ready for the moment — almost beckoning to the Avalanche from the side. It's back on the road for the Avalanche, where they're 8-1 so far in their playoff run.
“We have belief in our room that we can win every game we go out and play,” defenseman Devon Toews said. “We feel like we had a decent game tonight, pretty good game. Obviously it wasn’t enough tonight.”
Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Jan Rutta also scored for the Lightning. Valeri Nichushkin and Cale Makar had goals for Colorado. Makar's third-period tally bounced off the skate of Erik Cernak and through the pads of Vasilevskiy to tie it at 2.
That set the stage for Palat, whose shot slipped through the pads of Darcy Kuemper. It was Palat's 16th career go-ahead playoff goal, which trails only Brayden Point (18) in franchise history.
“I thought I played it well, slid over,” Kuemper said. "It just found a little hole.”
Tampa Bay regrouped after an emotional Game 4 loss at home on a overtime goal from Colorado forward Nazem Kadri. The Lightning felt the Avalanche might have had too many players on the ice on the winner.
A similar too-many-players-on-the-ice scenario unfolded Friday — and this time it was called. With 2:43 remaining, the Lightning went on the power play and made it so that Colorado couldn't pull Kuemper until the final moments. They weathered the Avalanche's late barrage.
Just the Lightning showing their championship mettle. They've already rallied back from a 3-2 deficit to Toronto in the first round, and climbed out of a 2-0 hole against the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals.
Completing this comeback series win would put them in an entirely different category. Only one team has rallied to capture a Game 7 in the final after trailing 3-1 in a series — the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs.
This is a gritty Lightning squad that's showing no signs of slowing down against a speedy Avalanche team and even after all the contests they've logged. Tampa Bay has played in 67 postseason games since the start of the first round in 2020, nearly an entire extra season.
Their resolve has impressed Lightning coach Jon Cooper. His team improved to 3-0 this season when facing potential elimination games.
“The mental fortitude you have to have to play in the environment they just played in, there’s a reason these guys have a couple rings on their fingers,” Cooper said.
The Avalanche are trying to capture their first title since 2001. The Avalanche fans were out in full force — both inside the building (an upper-level ticket on game day was going for around $1,500) and outside at a nearby watch party.
“It’s not supposed to be easy and it’s not going to be easy,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “We knew that coming into this. We knew that coming into tonight. ... Short memory in the playoffs and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The Avalanche are 2 for 2 in their visits to the Stanley Cup Final. They also won in 1996, which was their inaugural season in Denver after relocating from Quebec.
Soon after Nichushkin tied it at 1-apiece in the second, Kucherov knocked in a goal off the post. The power-play goal was with Alex Killorn in the box for holding, along with J.T. Compher (holding the stick) and Makar (tripping), making for a 4-on-3 situation.
Bednar wasn't exactly thrilled with the call on Makar.
“There was no intent there. I don’t even think he was checking that guy,” Bednar said. “Look to me like he kind of tripped over a stick. It’s a tough one.”
Kuemper finished with 26 saves.
“He was OK,” Bednar said. “I’d like to see him get the first one, obviously.”
That first one would be Rutta's score less than five minutes into the game that zapped some of the energy from the crowd. It was his first goal of these playoffs.
“We’ve been here. Have we been down 3-1? No,” Cooper said. “But we’ve been in these situations where we know the feeling of being in an elimination game."
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Pat Graham, The Associated Press