The Tampa Bay Lightning took a huge step toward pulling themselves back into the Stanley Cup Finals against the Colorado Avalanche after Monday’s Game 3 victory.
Another big leap is needed when the Lightning host Wednesday’s Game 4 of the best-of-seven series, which the Avalanche now lead 2-1.
“Well, as my son said, ‘Dad, your first game was a borderline C+, second game was an F,'” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “He gave us into the Bs in (Monday’s 6-2 win), so we’re trending in the right direction.”
The two-time champion Lightning believe star forward Nikita Kucherov will be able to play in Game 4. The team’s leading point scorer in the playoffs was injured late in Monday’s game when he was cross-checked in the back and fell awkwardly into the boards.
Though Kucherov departed with six minutes remaining in Game 3, all signs are now positive for Tampa Bay.
“I think so. I hope so. Let’s see how he is (Wednesday),” Cooper said. “I never count that kid out.”
The Lightning shouldn’t be counted out either. They responded from a 7-0 thrashing in Game 2 at Denver with a solid, start-to-finish performance Monday in their eighth consecutive home-ice victory.
Coming back is nothing new for the Lightning. Tampa Bay erased a 3-2 series deficit in the opening round against the Toronto Maple Leafs to win in seven games, then trailed the New York Rangers 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final before claiming the series in six games.
“It’s going to be a challenge. They’re going to respond now,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “We’ve seen this before with other teams and we need to improve even more.”
Cooper added that Brayden Point is highly doubtful for Game 4. Point missed the second and third rounds before returning to the lineup for the first two games of the Finals, only to be scratched from Game 3.
Now it’s the Avalanche’s turn to counter. Colorado, which had its seven-game overall winning streak and seven-game road winning streak snapped Monday, does have issues to address even if it is not yet time to panic.
One concern is the goaltender situation. No. 1 netminder Darcy Kuemper was pulled last game after surrendering five goals. Kuemper likely will be in goal Wednesday, but coach Jared Bednar wouldn’t tip his hand on whether he might turn to Pavel Francouz instead.
“(Kuemper) is allowed to have bad nights too. That’s the way it is,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said. “I wouldn’t hang him out to dry on any of those.”
Maybe even more of a pressing need is for leading goal scorer Nathan MacKinnon to contribute more. MacKinnon, who has tallied 11 goals and nine assists in the playoffs, has just two assists in the three games of this series.
“I like the looks. Obviously, I’ve got to find the back of the net,” said MacKinnon, who fired six shots on goal last game. “That’s my job.”
Bednar doesn’t want his best offensive forward putting too much pressure on himself.
“The last thing you want to do is get frustrated, especially if you’re getting opportunities. Eventually they come,” Bednar said. “You don’t have any choices as a player but to stick with it.”
Bednar said forward Andre Burakovsky (upper body) remained in Denver, which would make him unlikely to play in Game 4. Center Nazem Kadri skated again on Tuesday in anticipation of returning from hand surgery.
“I believe he is an option for us at some point (but) not sure how soon,” Bednar said.