Hockey — as weird, random, and boorish as it can get — is a pretty simple game at times. The storylines coming out of Game 3 were that the Tampa Bay Lightning authored some market correction to get back into the Stanley Cup Final after a 6-2 win to get the series to 2-1. And with no team having won on the road yet, it’s still hard to completely define what we have here.
It’s an easy descriptor to reach for after the Lightning were completely torched (get it?) in Game 2. The 7-0 scoreline that night was not flattering to the Avs, who could have put up 10 if they’d felt like it. So seeing the Lightning almost completely reverse the score makes it seem like they’ve climbed up onto the same perch as the Avs. They kicked our ass last time, we kicked theirs this time, all is equal.
Eh, not so much.
We can throw out the third period last night, thanks to the Lightning being up four goals and just running out the clock, letting the Avs dominate by whatever metric you like except the scoreboard. However, the first two periods were pretty even, in terms of attempts or expected goals. The number of attempts from each team was dead even through 40 minutes. The Lightning shaded the expected goals count through the first two periods, creating the better chances at even-strength to get a 1.74-1.17 advantage and 5-on-5.
Tampa coach Jon Cooper still went against the expectation, counting on getting the better of the matchups to avoid having to go full trap and trench like he did against the Rangers. And it worked, as Steven Stamkos didn’t have to see Cale Makar and Devon Toews as much as he did Erik Johnson, which allowed them to get off the backfoot far more than his line did in Denver. Makar and MacKinnon were faced with Anthony Cirelli’s line far more often than in Games 1 and 2, which meant they couldn’t turn over the ice and opposition as easily. Cirelli, Hagel, and Hedman can keep up much easier with the Avs’ top line even if they get out in the open. The better matchups allowed Cooper and the Lightning to try and get on the Avs higher up the ice, to engage their defense still in the Avs zone without allowing them to wind up and hit the neutral zone in top gear. That’s been Cooper’s fear of backing up into a trap, that no system is going to be able to stand up to a fully-in-flight Makar or MacKinnon.
But still, even with the matchups in Tampa’s favor, the first two periods could have gone either way, based on the balance of play. Instead, the score was 6-2 to the blue side. Essentially, simply, the game came down to Andrei Vasilevskiy doing this on some of the Avs’ big chances:
Meanwhile, Darcy Kuemper was doing stuff like this:
Flip the goalies, and the Avs probably win last night. In statistical terms, at all strengths the Lightning created 3.03 expected goals in the first two periods last night. They scored six goals. The Avs created 2.26 and were held to two. Vasilevskiy didn’t have to perform miracles, just kept the Avs to what they earned. But it was far better than what was going on at the other end.
This has been the story for Kuemper all playoffs, who has put up a -5.8 goals above (or below in this case) expected throughout the playoffs in 13 appearances. It hasn’t mattered much to the Avs, who have just trucked whoever has been in front of them until Game 3 against the Bolts, basically. But that’s how good they have to be to outrun Kuemper’s performance.
Analytically, there is something of a question of what the Avs should do in net. In seven appearances during Kuemper’s injury absence, Pavel Francouz has been exactly even in terms of goals given up over expected. Sure, he hasn’t seen anything quite like the firepower that the Lightning can offer (more on this in a sec), but he also won four games against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. However, as various towel-snappers will tell you, the games aren’t played on the statsheets. Avs coach Jared Bednar won’t want to start a whole firestorm by making a switch. Because if it doesn’t work, then what do you do? And yet he’s only got one or two more Kuemper pants-shittings to spare while Vasilevskiy gets more and more attuned to his Avs.
What might save Bednar and the Avs, if they need saving at all, is that the Lightning might not have anyone left to fill out the roster. Brayden Point’s brave but ultimately handicapped attempt to return in Games 1 and 2 was ended in Game 3 as he was scratched. It was clear he just wasn’t himself in Denver. Nick Paul and Nikita Kucherov both left Game 3 with injuries (though Paul kept returning and leaving like the Undertaker gimmick gone wrong, but was clearly limping). The Avs have their own injury problems, with Nazem Kadri looking less likely to return and being unable to shoot the puck if he does, Samuel Girard already out, Andre Burakovsky’s status up in the air. This is getting to be attrition as much as it is matchups and strategy to find open ice.
Whenever this series is decided, and whoever wins though, the most likely balance point will be just how much the Avs can shrink the distance between the goalies. Vasilevskiy is unlikely to have another Game 2 where the walls cave in. Can the Avs merely get goaltending that keeps things on a level between what should be and what is on the scoreboard? That’s all it should take, but Kuemper hasn’t proven he can do that.