Lightning relies on the championship to win Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals

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The back-to-back Stanley Cup winners were defeated 7-0 in Game 2 at the Ball Arena in Denver on Saturday and trailed 2-0 in the best-of-7 series.

“That last game didn’t sit well with anyone in that dressing room,” Forward said Anthony Cirelli said. “We knew we had to come out strong and have a big return game. I thought we did.”

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But Game 3 – and perhaps the series – relied on both gut instinct and guts, on luck and execution, and it showed how fragile confidence can be for even proven winners at the highest level.

The Lightning fell 2-0 and 3-1 in the first period of Game 1 and then lost 3-4 in overtime. They fell 3-0 in the first period of Game 2 and got blown out.

Five minutes into the first half of Game 3, Avalanche forward Valery Nikhushkin appeared to put the Blitz 1-0 down. Suddenly, Lightning coach Jon Cooper had to make a big decision.

Tampa Bay video coaches thought the game was offside, but their replay angle was out of the end zone and unclear. Was there white space between the puck and the blue line? Should Cooper challenge?

If Cooper challenged and video review confirmed the goal, the Lightning would execute a penalty for delaying the game, putting the dominant Avalanche power play on the ice and risking digging a 2-0 hole.

Cooper went with his gut.

“I don’t know exactly how it all works, but from an end zone perspective, the guys on the inside were like, ‘I can’t tell if that’s white or grainy,'” Cooper said. “I say, ‘Well, let’s go with the white guy.’ And it turned out to be offside.”

No goal.

The Lightning fell behind 1-0 anyway when going forward Gabriel Landeskog scored 8:19 on the power play. By this point, the Avalanche had scored nine straight goals going down to the overtime winner in Game 1.

Video: Thunderstorm past Avalanche to win Game 3 6-2

But then Cirelli made an incredible play, kicking the puck to his stick on a rush. He interrupted the goalkeeper Darcy Kumper and …

“I screwed it up,” Cirelli said.

Cirelli never actually shot the puck. But Kuemper was fooled, the puck slipped past him and the game was tied at 1:03.

Then next Ondrej Palat finished a give-and-go with Center Steven Stamko at 14:54, and the Lightning held a 2-1 lead, their first lead of the series.

How important was that? Well, every team went into the Stanley Cup Playoffs 6-1 when they led after the first half.

“I think that just cleared everything up,” Cooper said. “Not that our team was in a panic or anything. It just gave you a little exhale. ‘Okay, we have one.’ …

“The reaction from the group was great, we needed that, and then the puck started going into the net for us. And that’s why you sometimes need this break, this goal.

The Lightning took a 5-2 lead, chased Kuemper and later expanded to 6-2 in the second.

Game over. The Lightning broke the Avalanche series lead to 2-1. Game 4 is here Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS).

It’s easy to say that this is what the Lightning do.

It is true that they were beaten 5-0 by the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round and rebounded in Game 2 with a 5-3 win that left them 3-2 behind in that series and won in seven games .

It’s true that they lost the first two games to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals and were down 2-0 in Game 3 and they came back to win that series in six.

It is true that Stamkos said this after Saturday’s 7-0 loss in Game 2: “You have to keep going, as a team, as a person. Our team will do that. Let’s return home in front of our fans and let’s see what we’re made of.”

But even the Lightning, with all their mastery, must breathe and believe.

“We were early in the game for the first couple of games,” said Stamkos. “We’ve been chasing, and it feels like you’re just chasing the puck the whole game. Being in the lead gives you a little more confidence as a group. You see some games start to come your way and suddenly , you get your feet under you and it’s almost like you just feel lighter out there.

“It’s been a much better start to the game which has given our group some confidence and when you’re feeling that good you see the results and everything just seems to go your way. I think that was the difference early on.”

We will see. That could turn out to be the difference between a short streak and a long streak.

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