Lightning go from thin air to thin ice with Game 2 loss in Stanley Cup final

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DENVER — So, this is what it feels like.

The helplessness, the hopelessness, the utter embarrassment of showing up for a hockey game and realizing the team on the other bench is playing at a level you cannot comprehend.

Sheesh, kind of makes you feel sorry for Florida.

And Boston. And Carolina, and every other team the Lightning has skated past in recent postseasons.

Because what Colorado did to Tampa Bay in a 7-0 victory in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final on Saturday night was every bit as soul crushing as anything the Lightning have done to an opponent in recent seasons. Maybe even worse.

The good news is the Lightning will be leaving the thin air of the Rocky Mountains on Sunday morning. The bad news is they will be on thin ice by the time they get back home to Tampa Bay.

“We have a group that has been able to circle the wagons and respond,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I’m disappointed with the way the game went tonight, there’s no question. But I’m not questioning our team. They are ballers in there.

“So turn the page, move on to Game 3.”

The Lightning trail the Avalanche 2-0 after two games, which is the same hole they had to dig out of in the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers. The difference is the Rangers did not look as dominating or determined as Colorado.

The Avalanche were superior in virtually every phase of the game. Their power play scored. Their penalty kill scored a shorthanded goal. They thoroughly beat the Lightning in 5-on-5 situations.

“It’s not what we wanted, that’s for sure,” said forward Nick Paul. “Every person has to look at himself in the mirror. We have to swallow this one. We have to put it behind us. We have to get together as a group and figure some things out and just win our battles.”

If there was any consolation for the Lightning, it was the hope that most of the national television audience switched the channel before things got really ugly in the third period.

Even when Tampa Bay’s frustrations finally boiled over late in the game, the fight that followed seemed kind of wimpy. A few shoves, some half-hearted jabs and a lot of wrestling on the ice.

“We don’t feel sorry for ourselves,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We’ll figure it out when we get home.”

The players said all the right things after the loss, but they said similar things after losing Game 1 in overtime. It’s hard not to wonder about misplaced confidence when you consider that, two hours before Game 2, Cooper said he did not expect the first period to be as lopsided as Game 1.

Then his team went out and somehow looked even more inept.

Colorado completely controlled the action from the opening puck drop, in almost embarrassing fashion. Less than 11 minutes into the game, the Avalanche had 15 shot attempts compared to 1 for Tampa Bay.

By the 14-minute mark, Colorado was leading 3-0.

“You can’t score if you’re not getting any shots on the net,” Paul said.

It was as if a bunch of kids got together for a neighborhood game and one team got to pick the best 10 players. Colorado was quicker, more aggressive and smarter. Or maybe Tampa Bay was slower, more tentative and dumber. Either way, the result was the same.

For posterity’s sake, here are the macabre details:

Barely a minute into the game, Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh inexplicably went into goon mode on J.T. Compher and got called for roughing.

The result? With seven seconds remaining on the power play, Andre Burakovsky threaded a gorgeous pass to Valeri Nichushkin, who was gliding toward the net and deflected it past Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Five minutes later, the Lightning lost possession deep in the Colorado zone and McDonagh was caught flatfooted beyond mid-ice.

The result? The Avalanche had a 3-on-1 in the blink of an eye, and Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak hopelessly tried to lay out on the ice as Josh Manson fired a shot into the corner of the net.

“We gave up too many breakaways, and that’s not like us,” Hedman said.

So did the Avalanche crush the Lightning, or did the Lightning stand underneath an anvil? It might be a minor distinction, but Cooper seemed to suggest there was a middle ground to be found.

“They’re playing at an elite level right now. Give them credit. We are not,” Cooper said. “They are two good teams. They’re just playing at a much higher level than we are right now. And I think it was evident watching that game tonight.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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