Defending champion Lightning’s bid for 3-peat falls short

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TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t relinquish their grip on the Stanley Cup without a fight.

Andrei Vasilevskiy rejected shot after shot, keeping the two-time defending champions’ quest for a threepeat alive. In the end, another superb performance by the star goaltender wasn’t enough to keep the Colorado Avalanche from wresting the title away.

“It definitely stings,” defenseman Ryan MacDonagh said.

The Lightning were 3-0 when facing possible elimination before Sunday night’s 2-1 loss in Game 6 stopped their bid to become the first team to win three consecutive Stanley Cup championships since the New York Islanders captured four in a row from 1980-83.

Steven Stamkos got them off to a fast start, scoring from in front of Darcy Kuemper less than four minutes into the game.

The Avalanche only got seven shots off in the opening period, but never stopped coming at Vasilevskiy, who finished with 28 saves. Nathan MacKinnon and Artturi Lehkonen scored for Colorado in the second, and the Lightning never recovered in falling to 2-6 when trailing after two periods this postseason.

“We just ran out of gas,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And it sucks.”

Along the way to his team’s fourth Stanley Cup Final appearance in eight years, Cooper often marveled about the grit and determination of a team that resisted any temptation to rest on its laurels after winning back to back championships.

“The playoffs are a war of attrition, but they just kept coming back,” Cooper said of his players. “To sit here and think the last playoff series we lost was Columbus in 2019. Got to tip your hat to those guys in that room. …They were proud. That’s why you remember these teams, because they did everything right, they never complained and when the skill washes each other out, the gamers get it done. And they were gamers.”

The Lightning defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers on the way to this year’s final and had won 11 consecutive series before running into the speedy, ultra-talented Avalanche.

“There are so many easy outs we could have taken, but this group didn’t,” Stamkos said. “We didn’t quit. We left it all on the ice.”

Despite Sunday night’s loss, there are plenty of reasons to believe Tampa Bay’s window for success isn’t closed, beginning with Vasilevskiy, Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Brayden Point, who missed most of this playoff run after leading the teams in goals scored each of the past two postseasons.

“It’s been unbelieveable,” Stamkos said. “Who says we’re done? The core has been to four finals in the last eight years and won two championships.”

“We’re not done,” Cooper agreed.

The Lightning faced the league’s MVP in Auston Matthews in the first round, the Presidents’ Trophy winners in the second and Vezina Trophy winner and MVP finalist Igor Shesterkin in the Eastern Conference final. Then came the Avalanche featuring Norris Trophy winner Cale Maker.

“Star-studded teams,” Cooper said. “It’s not like we lost to some powder puff.”

Unlike a year ago, when the Lightning entered the offseason knowing there would be significant changes to the roster due to salary cap restraints, there figures to be little change to its talented core after this season’s extended playoff run.

The team spent much of this season rebuilding its third line after trading Tyler Johnson, losing Yanni Gourde to the expansion draft and Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow to free agency after all four of them played key roles in back-to-back championship runs.

The biggest question this year is whether they’ll be able to retain Ondrej Palat and Nicholas Paul, a pair of versatile forwards who will be unrestricted free agents and could command big paydays on the open market this summer.

Palat, a seventh-round draft pick in 2011 who has been somewhat underrated while playing on a talented club that’s made four Stanley Cup appearances since 2015, ranks second in career playoff games with 138.

The 31-year-old scored 23 goals during the regular season — most since 2013-14 — and finished with 21 points (11 goals, 10 assists) in 23 games this postseason.

The Lightning acquired Paul in a trade from the Ottawa Senators in March. At 27, he’s four years younger than Palat, a fan favorite who’s scored a franchise-best 11 game-winning goals in the playoffs.

Paul made his postseason debut last month and had five goals and four assists.

Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

“I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

“I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.

All-Star Matty Beniers to miss next 2 games for Kraken

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SEATTLE — Seattle Kraken rookie All-Star Matty Beniers will miss the team’s final two games before the All-Star break after taking a big hit from Vancouver’s Tyler Myers earlier this week.

Seattle coach Dave Hakstol said after morning skate Friday that Beniers would not play Friday night against Calgary or Saturday against Columbus. Hakstol did not speculate on Beniers’ availability for next weekend’s All-Star Game in Florida.

The team has not specified what kind of injury Beniers sustained from the hit. He was barreled over by Myers away from the play early in the second period in Wednesday’s 6-1 victory over Vancouver. Myers was penalized for interference on the play. Beniers returned briefly for one shift later in the period but did not play in the third period.

Beniers is Seattle’s lone All-Star selection this season. He leads all rookies in goals (17) and points (36), and is fifth in total ice time for rookies.

Seattle also placed defenseman Justin Schultz on injured reserve and recalled forward Max McCormick from Coachella Valley of the AHL. Hakstol said Schultz is improving but there’s no timeline on his return.