TAMPA - I think I saw your next Stanley Cup winners Thursday night and, sorry folks, don't think it's the Colorado Avalanche. If that's the way the Tampa Bay Lightning will keep playing, then I think the Penguins' two-year reign is over and the Cup engraver can start learning all its tough-to-spell Russian player names already.
Wow, the Lightning is good. The fact that the Avs were able to just stay within one goal entering the final period of Thursday's game felt like a big accomplishment. The final was 5-2 at Amalie Arena, as Tampa Bay improved to a league-leading 20-6-2. For the first time this season, the Avs now have more losses than wins in regulation (12-13-2).
Vladislav Namestnikov broke a 2-2 tie with a rebound putback at 8:09 of the second period, which was enough for old friend Peter Budaj in the Lightning net. Namestnikov is one of several real good, young Russian players, part of a Lightning group that always seems to play with the puck. The Lightning doesn't just have the puck a lot, it does a lot of really creative, intricate things with the puck.
The Bolts really caught the Avs off guard early in the game with some long stretch passes, plays that almost seemed like set pieces. Included was a sequence that led to Steven Stamkos' goal at 1:46, just 25 seconds after Gabe Landeskog had a happy return from a four-game suspension with his 10th goal.
Chris Kunitz, who at 38 looks like he has a great shot at a fifth Stanley Cup in his playing career, made a great tip of a Namestnikov shot at 13:36 of the first to make it 2-1, but Erik Johnson answered that with his third goal - a short-side shot that beat Budaj through the 5-hole.
The shots after one period were 17-7 Tampa Bay. It seemed like the most uneven tie game in the history of hockey at that point.
Here's the thing: The Avs probably outplayed the Lightning in the second period. They had several great scoring chances, including a short-handed breakaway for J.T. Compher and a Sven Andrighetto doorstep rebound chance. Tampa Bay was pretty good in the second too, but only outshot Colorado 10-9.
Namestnikov got the only goal, though. It came after Avs D-men Tyson Barrie and Patrik Nemeth were too sloppy with the puck behind their net, with Namestnikov batting in a loose puck alone in the right slot.
Even in the first five minutes of the third, the Avs were stride for stride with Tampa Bay. The shots, after Landeskog put one on Budaj with 3:32 gone in the period, had gotten to a much more respectable 28-20 overall.
That's when things went bad.
Mikko Rantanen, who was invisible most of the night offensively, was whistled for holding the stick of Victor Hedman. You just can't take bad penalties in the offensive zone against this team, one that has the best power-play in the league, and Alex Killorn made the Avs pay with a goal at 4:57.
"We take five penalties, a couple in the offensive zone, you know, needless. Eventually, they're going to find a way," Jared Bednar said.
That was, essentially, your hockey game. The Avs battled hard and gave a respectable showing overall.
That will have to finish as the moral victory the Avs got. Real victory never seemed an option.
NOTES AND OBSERVATIONS
Jared Bednar elected to go with seven defensemen and 11 forwards in the game, with the return of Patrik Nemeth. That meant plenty of double-shifting of forwards such as Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon.
Sven Andrighetto remains mired in a miserable slump. Here are things that don't help: In the first period, he had a partially open net to shoot at on the left side, after getting a nice cross pass. Andrighetto took an extra second to gather up a shot, however, which was all Budaj needed to slide across and make the save. Andrighetto needs to make quicker decisions with the puck if he wants to end his 10-game goal drought.
While it's tough to get on Semyon Varlamov as the reason the Avs have been losing games of late, the fact is he's been too average, like he was against the Bolts. The Avs need him to be very good-to-great to be a consistent winner still, but he's been just too mediocre. Varly also hurt the cause by taking a tripping minor at 11:01 of the second. The Avs had really been carrying the play to that point in the period.
Bednar, though, said Varlamov was "great" against the Lightning, that he "gave us a chance" in the game. Fair enough. Like I said, he wasn't the reason the Avs lost this one. But has Varly really stolen a game in a while? No. Fair or not, that's what teams like the Avs need at times.
Tyson Jost got some power-play time in the second period, and looked good. No reward, but Jost had his best game in a while.
Compher had two breakaways in the game. He might have been held by Hedman on the first (no call) and tried to beat Budaj 5-hole on the second in the third, but to no avail.
Landeskog scored a nice goal to start the game and generally did good things offensively. But he took two more penalties, including a tripping minor on Ondrej Palat with 8:22 left that killed any realistic hope of a comeback. Those were the kinds of reaching fouls the Avs talked about before the game as the kind they couldn't take, not against this team.
Carl Soderberg, who I thought played a pretty good game, said Saturday's game in Florida is essentially a must-win game for his club. "We don't care about any moral victories right now," he said. "We have to stop this losing streak."
Rantanen was furious after the game, over the third-period holding-the-stick penalty against Victor Hedman. He did not like the call, let's put it that way. He had a few choice words when the recorders weren't on him. Bednar said it was kind of a "hard-working" situation leading up to the call, but said he didn't see the replay enough to make a judgment.