Lightning begins the quest for three out of sync hits

DENVER — As he rode the elevator from the press box, the still noisy and shaking barn of a hometown overtime winner, Colorado Avalanche icon Joe Sakic, said this that everyone thought, “Great hockey game.”

And again: “Great hockey game.

Of course, Sakic — this city’s most recent captain to lift the Stanley Cup — is biased.

But he is not wrong.

From drop to pop, Game 1 was a thrill ride. Elite skills and full screen fast game breakers. A comeback and a backlash. And a loud, pom-pom-waving, Blink-182-singing crowd that never gave in. Just like the frantic pace of the game.

A few others like Sakic’s 4-3 overtime victory, and hockey could crown a new champion.

Heck, even Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper had to admit “the right team won the game” on Wednesday.

“The crowd is going crazy. They’re all excited,” Cooper said, going 1-0 down the series for the third time in this playoffs. “It’s a different team. We’re not used to seeing them. They play with extreme rhythm.

“But our group, we should have handled that a bit better.”

The Lightning flew into the mountains to dip its toe in the water.

Tampa started their bid attempt three times and out of sync. Some sloppy early zone exits and slow legs had the champions playing on their heels and from behind. The Bolts needed to regroup from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to force a fourth period.

Colorado pressed with determination and attacked in waves, taking a 5-3 power play (on a questionable journey by Anthony Cirelli of Cale Makar) and leaping on the neutral zone turnover to draw first blood.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos wondered if his group started too timidly. Like a seasoned heavyweight, Tampa has a penchant for sniffing out his opponent, getting a feel for their weaknesses before throwing weight.

So while the Lightning advanced through the night, the Avs stormed down.

“It’s a hell of a hockey team there, and we knew they were going to come out strong. They did,” Stamkos said. “Perhaps a tough call in hindsight to give them a 5v3, but we fought to level the game.”

Colorado took the puck 17 times. Tampa just four.

“There were probably more turnovers than we’re used to,” said Alex Killorn. “Especially playing with such a talented team as they have, you don’t want to give them those opportunities.”

No sir.

Funny thing. Even though the Lightning didn’t submit their best game “by a country mile,” as Cooper put it, the champions were one shot away from stealing this one.

Nikita Kucherov didn’t do well until, in a flash, he scribbled around number 2 D-man Devon Toews and tapped in for Ondrej Palat. Mikhail Sergachev didn’t have his best performance either, but he had a smart shot 48 seconds later and tied the game.

Just then, a rare Lightning fan in the middle of a bowl of burgundy stood up, turned around and addressed the portable jockeys in the Ball Arena press room above him.

“Media, are you watching? shouted this gentleman in the Brayden Point away sweater and holding a can of domestic beer. “Hope you’re watching!” That’s what champions do!

Indeed, that is what they do.

“They scored two quick goals,” said Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen. “A little shocked us a little.”

Precisely, no one should be shocked now.

The Lightning trailed the Maple Leafs three times in the first round. They lost the first two games in New York in the semi-finals.

They don’t panic. They adjust.

“It comes from experience,” says defender Zach Bosgosian. “We are a group of veterans. We are a confident group. And no matter what situation is thrown at us, it feels like not much needs to change in the play.

Sergachev ignored Colorado’s incredible speed (“We’re playing that fast”) and his own costly turnover.

“It’s the usual stuff. We have lost 1 matches before. It’s a series,” Sergachev explained. “We’ll take the day off tomorrow and relax, clear our heads and practice. Go out to match 2.

“Nothing changes for us. We are still a confident group.

Fox’s Fast 5

• Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed three goals in the first period for the first time in his playoff career.

Cooper has his back, however: “I thought he was connected. The first, the mobile screen, so it was difficult for him. The second, maybe [he should’ve stopped]. But I thought he was probably our best player tonight.

• Injury roundup: Colorado forwards Nazem Kadri (thumb) and Andrew Cogliano (finger) are considered day-to-day. Neither of them took part in practice on Wednesday morning.

Tampa’s Brandon Hagel (ill) sat out practice on Tuesday but was deemed well enough to play the opener.

• Quote of the day.

When the league brought quadrilingual Pierre-Édouard Bellmare to the podium, a public relations officer announced that the player would first answer questions in English, then answer a few more in his native language.

“Which?” Bellmare impassive.

Once the questions in English were over, the Frenchman answered them in Swedish, of course.

• Rough night for Tampa’s generally excellent stop line.

The Hagel-Cirelli-Killorn trio was outplayed 9-3 and 1-0 at 5-5.

Victor Hedman also collapsed. Shots were 12-4 and goals were 2-1 in favor of the Avalanche with runner-up Norris on the ice at 5-5.

• Point skated 18 minutes, recorded an assist and a win, and won most of his ties (56%) in his long-awaited comeback.

“Was Brayden Point the Brayden Point before his injury? Probably not. But it’s their first game in over a month, and we’ve been up against the fastest team in the league. So it’s hard to get going, but I think he’s done really well,” Cooper said.

“Look, he’s a warrior. He will dump it,” Stamkos added. “It was just great for him to come back, and great and for our team to see him back there. I thought he was playing well.

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