Lost amid seven-goal outburst: The Avalanche’s 60-minute defensive clamp down of Tampa Bay

Understandably overshadowed Saturday night amid a seven-goal outburst of highlights in its Game 2 blowout of the Tampa Bay Lightning: Statistically, the Avalanche played its best defensive game of the season.

In taking a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final with a 7-0 win, the Avalanche allowed 16 shots on goal, its fewest in 98 games this regular season/playoffs.

The Lightning had one shot in the first 10 minutes.

The Lightning had basically one prime scoring opportunity, a low slot deflection that was saved by Avs goaltender Darcy Kuemper.

And the Lightning was shut out for the second time this postseason and posted its lowest shot total in 101 regular season/playoff games this year. Its previous low playoff shot total was 23 … in Game 1 against the Avalanche.

Gradually and pretty much ever since the second period of Game 2 against Edmonton, the message has locked into the Avalanche’s mind. Great defense leads to offensive opportunities. Playing at a breakneck pace is entertaining, but not at the expense of avoiding responsibility in its zone.

Improved discipline or attention to details defensively?

“I think both,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said Sunday morning before the team flew to Tampa, Fla., for Games 3-4 Monday and Wednesday. “I think the guys were engaged (Saturday), highly committed to our checking game, playing to the structure and detail of our game (and) highly competitive so that helps.”

Yes, it does help.

The Avalanche was off and checking, grinding and battling from the game’s first shift Saturday.

Winger Valeri Nichushkin (the Avs’ best player in Games 1-2) had been on the ice for 42 seconds before he ignited the fore-check, harassing Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh into the corner. Winger Gabe Landeskog intercepted a soft clearing attempt. An instant later, center J.T. Compher forced a turnover and Nichushkin had an early scoring chance. Gassed, McDonagh committed a reckless penalty and the Avalanche scored on the power play.

And so it went for most of the game. The Lightning was chasing the puck. The Avalanche was possessing it.

“We had the puck a lot and that was a lot of (the success),” Avs defenseman Erik Johnson said. “We fore-checked really, really well and we played as a connected five-man unit all over the ice.”

Said winger Mikko Rantanen: “They had trouble breaking the puck out and we just have to keep doing that same thing. We were skating the whole game.”

Leading 3-0 early in the second period, Rantanen went to work behind the Tampa Bay goal and intercepted a lazy pass by the Lightning’s Ondrej Palat intended for Victor Hedman and fed Nichushkin for the goal.

As the deficit grew, the Lightning couldn’t get out of the blocks offensively, struggling to even gain the Avs’ zone; it had an icing during a second-period power play. At one point, the Avalanche had four goals and Tampa Bay had seven shots.

“It didn’t look pretty, that’s for sure,” veteran Lightning winger Corey Perry said.

The end result was historic.

Teams led by Henri Richard and Guy Lafleur in Montreal (1970s), Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier in Edmonton (1980s) and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in Chicago (2010s) never experienced the kind lop-sided win the Avalanche accomplished in Game 2.

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Since the NHL expanded for the first time in 1967-68, the Avalanche’s rout was tied for the second-largest in a Cup Final. Pittsburgh beat Minnesota 8-0 in 1991 (Game 6), followed by the Avalanche’s 8-1 win over Florida in ’96 (Game 2) and Boston’s 8-1 win over Vancouver in ’11 (Game 3).

The Penguins clinched the Cup with their rout, the Avs swept Florida and the Bruins beat the Canucks in seven.

On the road this postseason, the Avalanche is 3-0 in Game 3s. If it fore-checks like it did in Game 2, it will put a vice grip on this series and skate to within one game of the Cup.

“I was really impressed with our team’s performance (in Game 2) — I thought they were dialed in on all aspects,” Bednar said. “But 7-0 or 1-0, it doesn’t matter — it’s one performance. We’ll go out and try and repeat or better that performance in Game 3.”