In N.H.L. Finals, Avalanche Go From Chaser to Front-Runner

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DENVER — Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals was described as the challenger catching up to the reigning champion. In Game 2, the challenger flew right on past.

The Colorado Avalanche, forecast several years ago by many to quickly ascend the ladder to N.H.L. greatness, are two victories away from winning the Stanley Cup after a 7-0 destruction of the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday in a game that felt like a coming-out party.

The question now: Can Tampa Bay revive itself, as it did in the Eastern Conference finals after the Rangers grabbed a short-lived 2-0 series lead? Or is the hockey world witnessing the transfer of power from a dignified but exhausted champion to a young, dynamic team of the future? Was Game 2 an aberration or has Colorado arrived with more urgency than anyone had predicted?

“They are playing at an elite level right now, give them credit,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “We are not.”

The hardest part still lies ahead for Colorado. The next two games, including Game 3 on Monday night, are at sea level in Tampa, Fla., and no team in three seasons has found a way to knock out the champion so far. Tampa Bay has won 11 straight playoff series, but the Avalanche have the look of a different creature.

Entering the finals, some Lightning players acknowledged Colorado would be the best team they have faced in this championship run. But they never intended to suggest the Avalanche were better. Two games into the series, though, Colorado looks faster, more dangerous, fresher and even more committed.

“There’s a fine line between having respect for your opponent and too much respect for your opponent,” Steven Stamkos, the captain of the Lightning, said. “We need to realize that we got here for a reason. Let’s get back to our game and understand they have an unbelievable team over there with great skill at every position. But so do we. So let’s find out what we’re made of when they get back home.”

It is becoming increasingly clear what Colorado is made of. Led by a world-class playmaker, Nathan MacKinnon, and a transcendent, puck-moving defenseman, Cale Makar, the team also has a sizzling supporting cast. It includes forwards Mikko Rantanen, Andre Burakovsky, Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, who scored twice in Game 2, plus the defenseman Devon Toews. All of them are younger than 30.

The Lightning, with the second-oldest average age of any team in the N.H.L., have relied on their experience to outplay opponents the last couple of years, but accruing all that experience may have taken a toll.

Going deep into the postseason two years in a row, Tampa Bay has played more games than any other team in that span, and any possible fatigue may have been exacerbated by the altitude during Games 1 and 2. Denver sits at roughly a mile above sea level, which may have affected the Lightning’s performances. If so, a return to sea level for Games 3 and 4 could help.

They need it. After Game 1, which went to overtime, the Lightning spoke of getting a better understanding of how the Avalanche play. But it was Colorado that enhanced its advantage with a new set of achievements.

It became the second team in more than 100 years to register a shutout in the Stanley Cup finals with a margin of more than seven goals, after the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins, who beat the Minnesota North Stars, 8-0, in the clinching Game 6 that year.

Colorado also became the third team to score seven goals four times in one postseason, joining the Edmonton Oilers, who did it six times in 1984 and five times in 1985, in an era when goals were scored at a higher rate than in today’s game.

And with Makar scoring twice in Game 2, the Avalanche’s blue liners have 17 goals (seven by Makar) and 61 points in these playoffs, a record for Colorado defensemen. Makar sniped a short-handed goal and added another on a power play, making him the second N.H.L. defenseman to score on both sides of a man advantage in a Stanley Cup finals game. Glen Wesley of the Boston Bruins did it in 1988 against Edmonton.

Colorado has won seven consecutive playoff games, including its sweep of the Oilers in the Western Conference finals, and is 7-0 on the road — a juggernaut reaching peak speed in Game 2 of the finals.

“It was certainly as close to a perfect game as you can get from the players,” Avalanche Coach Jared Bednar said.

Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s normally superb goalie, bore the brunt of the onslaught, allowing more goals than he had ever given up in a postseason game. Most of it was not his fault. Colorado’s wicked pace helped create numerous premium chances, some of which Vasilevskiy saved with remarkable dexterity.

“We hung him out to dry,” Stamkos said. “We owe it to him to have a better game next game.”

Vasilevskiy has not been replaced in a playoff game since 2018, a streak of 77 games, and Cooper said he did not contemplate removing him from Game 2.

“Even if I did, I don’t think he would have come out,” Cooper said. “That’s what a competitor he is. That’s why he’s the best.”

Stamkos said the time had come for all the Lightning players to “man up,” and Victor Hedman, a veteran defenseman, said the team would figure it out at home. But what confounded Cooper was the absence of pushback against a team that was zooming past his.

Although the Avalanche are far different from the Rangers, Cooper said, the Lightning can draw on their experience against New York of abruptly reversing course at home.

“We’ve written one story,” Cooper said. “Now we just have to write another.”