TAMPA, Fla. — Nick Paul stumbled off the ice toward the Tampa Bay Lightning dressing room, stricken with the sort of injury that compels fans to offer to donate one, or both, of their own legs: ugly, debilitating, maybe even series-ending.
“No,” Paul said. “I was coming back, for sure.”
So he did. He staggered. He lurched. He also scored what proved to be the winning goal Monday in Tampa Bay’s 6-2 romp over the Colorado Avalanche in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, embodying the fighting spirit of a team that had absorbed a rather — what’s the word here? — decisive defeat just two nights earlier.
It is, by now, N.H.L. canon: No matter what seems to befall the Lightning, whether playoff bubbles or salary-cap crunches or imposing deficits, they — much like Paul’s right leg — are seemingly indestructible. For the second consecutive series, they lost the first two games, one a total fiasco. And for the second consecutive series, they returned to Amalie Arena, where they are 8-1 this postseason, and regrouped.
On a micro level, that meant stout goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy, improved puck management and the re-emergence of stars such as Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman, who each had two points on Monday. But in a macro sense, and this is what must terrify even the most partisan Colorado supporter, the Lightning again evinced a certain calmness that intimidates more than even the brawniest enforcer.
That calmness enables players to compartmentalize after losing by seven goals. It allows them to mitigate the absences of injured stars like Brayden Point, who missed his 11th game of these playoffs Monday. And it pervades a room that indoctrinates newcomers like Paul, who, until joining Tampa Bay at the trade deadline after six and a half seasons with the Ottawa Senators, had never played in a postseason game. The win Monday, the Lightning said, was not so much a relief but an affirmation.
Only five teams have overcome a two-games-to-none deficit in the Cup finals — Boston, in 2011, was the last — and Tampa Bay is seeking to become the first to erase that lead in consecutive seven-game series.
“There’s a reason why we’re here, and there’s a reason why we won tonight,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “There’s a reason why this has gone on for the last couple of years: The guys you need to lead you have been doing that, and then everybody falls in line.”
Those guys — Stamkos, Hedman and Kucherov among them — make up the indomitable core of a team that has won 11 consecutive playoff series since imploding in the first round in 2019, losing all four games to Columbus. That collapse initiated not a personnel overhaul — not once, General Manager Julien BriseBois said before the finals, did he consider drastic changes — but an honest assessment of who the Lightning were and what they were missing: defense, tenacity and balance.
Dealing what amounted to three first-round picks, BriseBois acquired near the 2020 trade deadline two bottom-six forwards, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow, who added resolve and timely scoring to a championship roster. They departed, as rich men, last off-season, and into that void rushed Paul, who meshed with Tampa Bay’s ethos and has filled that third-line role with aplomb.
After logging 18 points in 59 games for Ottawa, Paul had 14 in 21 regular-season games with the Lightning. In the first round against Toronto, Paul scored Tampa Bay’s only two goals of Game 7 to oust his hometown team.
“The confidence,” Paul said, when asked what he noticed upon arriving. “And just being able to get it done no matter what it takes.”
Clinging to the vague nomenclature that accompanies playoff injuries — dysentery, for instance, might be classified as merely a lower-body ailment — Paul said he felt “pins and needles” after a shove from Avalanche defenseman Josh Manson sent him careering onto his “funny bone,” which is quite the euphemism for right knee. The sensation that rippled through rendered the act of skating less an inconvenience than an extravagance. But it abated enough for him, on his first shift back, to take a pass from Ross Colton in the slot 86 seconds into the second period and whip a shot past Colorado goalie Darcy Kuemper.
“You see some plays start to go your way, and all of a sudden you get your feet beneath you,” Stamkos said. “It’s almost like you just feel lighter out there.”
Two more Lightning goals followed in the next 10 or so minutes, banishing Kuemper to the bench, and now it is Colorado’s turn to reel, rest and recalibrate. This Avalanche team, in a sense, evokes the nascent Lightning — loaded with speed and skill but lacking, as of yet, the validation of a championship.
Last postseason, after tying for the most points in the N.H.L., Colorado won its first two second-round games against Vegas by a 10-3 margin. It then lost the next four. In the first two games of these finals, Colorado outscored Tampa Bay by 11-3. Now, with its aura of invincibility pierced and an unsettled goalie situation heading into Game 4 on Wednesday night, the Avalanche will try to avoid a similar meltdown.
“We’ll be back,” the Avalanche captain, Gabriel Landeskog, said, “and we’ll be fine.”
Maybe. Maybe not. The Rangers, after expressing the same conviction across the Eastern Conference finals, scored all of five goals in losing four straight. The Avalanche are a more potent adversary, but the Lightning remain as they ever were. Champions once, twice, and, aside from an unsightly wobble, with their dynastic aspirations real and intact.