Best on best sure is something.
In an exhilarating opening game of the Stanley Cup Final, Andre Burakovsky closed the show off a brilliant feed from Valeri Nichushkin to give the Colorado Avalanche a 1-0 series lead with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night at ball arena.
Burakovsky’s winner arrived one minute and 23 seconds into the bonus frame after the Lightning had killed what remained of a late penalty committed in regulation — and after Patrick Maroon nearly scored after he stepped out of the box.
While Burakovsky was the hero, it was more fitting that Nichushkin created the winner. The less-heralded star and pending unrestricted free agent was brilliant from start to finish, scoring once, counting two points, and finishing with a game-high six shots on 11 attempts. Nichushkin was probably the single most influential skater from an attacking standpoint, tormenting the Lightning in his 19 minutes.
Colorado also had goals from captain Gabriel Landeskog and Artturi Lehkonen, while Darcy Kuemper made 20 saves in his return to the Avalanche net.
Burakovsky and Nichushkin being the difference for the Avalanche may have deviated from the consensus expectation, but the game did follow a somewhat predictable script on several levels.
Proving that the rest-versus-rust debate was less important than the jarring nature of suddenly playing at altitude, the Avalanche jumped all over the Lightning early, scoring twice in the first 10 minutes. Those goals repeated a problematic pattern (but not one he hasn’t overcome) for Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has allowed 16 of his total 43 goals (or 37 percent) in the four Game 1s Tampa Bay has played on the path back to the Stanley Cup Final.
Tampa was able to net one before the period was up with Nick Paul sliding one past Kuemper, but trailed by two goals following the opening frame after Mikko Rantanen set up Lehkonen for this powerplay marker.
The Lightning took back much of the run of play to begin the second period and were rewarded with two goals, including an equalizer.
The bounce-back began with a brilliant two-on-two dissection of the best defensive pairing in the league from Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
It was Kucherov who schooled Devon Toews on the rush as the Lightning forwards overlapped in their attack, while Palat snuck behind Cale Makar for the tap-in.
Mikhail Sergachev tied the game 48 seconds later, using his now-patented half snapper from the point to find a seam through traffic.
For the most part, though, the Lightning spent the evening trying to absorb the Avalanche attack, which, again, was the sort of game situation many were bracing for.
Colorado out-shot the Lightning in each period, aside from overtime, putting intense pressure on Vasilevskiy with a 38-23 advantage in targets. They also generated 78 total looks with a 57 percent share of the total shot attempts, forcing Lightning defenders into 25 blocked shots, many of which were critical.
But to the Avalanche’s credit, they finished with more blocked shots than the Lightning — as well as more than Kuemper had saves — forcing the opponent to earn the few looks they had.
What wasn’t as expected, if you’re willing to omit Vasilevskiy’s track record in Game 1, what how quick the Avalanche were able to turn decent looks into goals. Both the Landeskog and Nichushkin markers appeared avoidable for Vasilevskiy, who turned in one of his worst periods of the postseason in the opening frame.
Equally surprising might have been how quickly Colorado coughed up the lead.
But Game 1 was, in many ways, the perfect first act in what could be a long and memorable series.
We seldom see the two best teams meet in the Stanley Cup Final, let alone the sort of matchup that pits dynasty versus desperation.
Colorado’s victory once again puts the Lightning in a position to show off that bulletproof resolve in Game 2, or, more critically, when the series shifts to Tampa Bay.
While it’s not a guarantee that we’ll see these two teams exchange punches over the course of six or seven games, the Avalanche’s Game 1 victory felt like it set the groundwork for that.
And we should all consider ourselves lucky that the best possible series on paper appears primed to meet expectation.
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