TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t relinquish their grip on the Stanley Cup without a fight.
Andrei Vasilevskiy rejected shot after shot, keeping the two-time defending champions’ quest for a threepeat alive. In the end, another superb performance by the star goaltender wasn’t enough to keep the Colorado Avalanche from wresting the title away.
“It definitely stings," defenseman Ryan MacDonagh said.
The Lightning were 3-0 when facing possible elimination before Sunday night’s 2-1 loss in Game 6 stopped their bid to become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cup championships since the New York Islanders captured four in a row from 1980-83.
Steven Stamkos got them off to a fast start, scoring from in front of Darcy Kuemper less than four minutes into the game.
The Avalanche only got seven shots off in the opening period, but never stopped coming at Vasilevskiy, who finished with 28 saves. Nathan MacKinnon and Artturi Lehkonen scored for Colorado in the second, and the Lightning never recovered in falling to 2-6 when trailing after two periods this postseason.
“We just ran out of gas,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And it sucks."
Along the way to his team's fourth Stanley Cup Final appearance in eight years, Cooper often marveled about the grit and determination of a team that resisted any temptation to rest on its laurels after winning back to back championships.
“The playoffs are a war of attrition, but they just kept coming back,” Cooper said of his players. “To sit here and think the last playoff series we lost was Columbus in 2019. Got to tip your hat to those guys in that room. ...They were proud. That’s why you remember these teams, because they did everything right, they never complained and when the skill washes each other out, the gamers get it done. And they were gamers.”
The Lightning defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers on the way to this year’s final and had won 11 consecutive series before running into the speedy, ultra-talented Avalanche.
“There are so many easy outs we could have taken, but this group didn't,” Stamkos said. “We didn't quit. We left it all on the ice.”
Despite Sunday night’s loss, there are plenty of reasons to believe Tampa Bay’s window for success isn’t closed, beginning with Vasilevskiy, Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point, who missed most of this playoff run after leading the teams in goals scored each of the past two postseasons.
“It's been unbelieveable,” Stamkos said. “Who says we're done? The core has been to four finals in the last eight years and won two championships.”
“We're not done," Cooper agreed.
The Lightning faced the league's MVP in Auston Matthews in the first round, the Presidents' Trophy winners in the second and Vezina Trophy winner and MVP finalist Igor Shesterkin in the Eastern Conference final. Then came the Avalanche featuring Norris Trophy winner Cale Maker.
“Star-studded teams," Cooper said. "It's not like we lost to some powder puff.”
Unlike a year ago, when the Lightning entered the offseason knowing there would be significant changes to the roster due to salary cap restraints, there figures to be little change to its talented core after this season’s extended playoff run.
The team spent much of this season rebuilding its third line after trading Tyler Johnson, losing Yanni Gourde to the expansion draft and Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow to free agency after all four of them played key roles in back-to-back championship runs.
The biggest question this year is whether they’ll be able to retain Ondrej Palat and Nicholas Paul, a pair of versatile forwards who will be unrestricted free agents and could command big paydays on the open market this summer.
Palat, a seventh-round draft pick in 2011 who has been somewhat underrated while playing on a talented club that’s made four Stanley Cup appearances since 2015, ranks second in career playoff games with 138.
The 31-year-old scored 23 goals during the regular season — most since 2013-14 — and finished with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 23 games this postseason.
The Lightning acquired Paul in a trade from the Ottawa Senators in March. At 27, he’s four years younger than Palat, a fan favorite who’s scored a franchise-best 11 game-winning goals in the playoffs.
Paul made his postseason debut last month and had five goals and four assists.