New York Post

Weary Bolts’ three-peat hunt fading


DENVER — It’s no secret Tampa Bay has played more hockey over the past two years than any other team in the NHL.

That may — finally — be taking a toll on the two-time defending champ Lightning against the Avalanche, who took a much shorter route to the Stanley Cup Final and lead the best-ofseven series 2-0 going into Game 3 on Monday in Tampa.

“The shot blocking, the groins, the hips, the cuts, the bruises, playing every second night: That’s the toll,” coach Jon Cooper said Sunday. “And so when you get to the end, even though it doesn’t look like they’re banged up, they’re missing guys, we’re missing guys. We’ve got banged-up guys. That’s what the playoff toll does. It’s not what happened last year.”

What happened last year was the Lightning became the second franchise since the salary cap era began in 2005 to win the Cup back-toback. This year, they beat Toronto in seven games, swept Florida and advanced to the final by coming back to beat the Rangers in six.

Tampa Bay has played 67 postseason games since Aug. 1, 2020 — the most by one team over the span of three playoffs. Because the pandemic pushed the 2020 playoffs into the summer and early fall, it’s all condensed more than normal. It would make sense for players to run out of gas.

“You’ve played an extraordin­ary amount of games, and playoff games are obviously just a little bit more physical, a little bit more everything as you play them,” said three-time Cup champion Justin Williams, who’s becoming an NHL Network analyst starting with Game 3. “As of right now, these guys are fading. Listen, they’ve played a lot of hockey, but once you get this far in the playoffs, you’re running mostly on adrenaline right now.

“You feel pretty good, and an excuse to have played too much hockey is one that I’m sure that they’re not prepared to use right now.”

The Avalanche do look like the fresher team, and that has allowed them to keep up the pressure on the Lightning despite an experience disadvanta­ge at this stage of the playoffs. Colorado got here by flustering opponents into making mistakes, and that recipe is working again in the final.

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