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Road test at Lightning stands between Avalanche, Stanley Cup

Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon (29) moves the puck against Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) during the second period in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Final, Friday, June 24, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Josh Manson still had his bags half-packed from the Colorado Avalanche’s last time on the road, when they returned home with the chance to win the Stanley Cup.

That didn’t happen, and now he and his teammates are confronted with Game 6 Sunday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the arena they hoisted the Cup a year ago to become back-to-back champions.

Trying to win their first championship as a group and the organization’s first since 2001, the Avalanche know the immense challenge they have in front of them against a desperate opponent that has more experience this deep into the playoffs.

“You have to have that desperation because it’s the finals,” Manson said Saturday in Denver before flying to Tampa. “You can’t look at the amount of games that we have left. You have to be desperate every single game.”

Colorado would desperately like to avoid a second consecutive loss that sets up Game 7 back home Wednesday and Tampa Bay being one victory away from a three-peat. And it even has a recipe for handling this situation against a more seasoned playoff opponent.

That came in the second round when the Avalanche went up 3-1 in the second round against rival St. Louis — the last team to win the Cup before the Lightning’s run began in 2020. Much like Friday night, they lost a one-goal game at home to the Blues before bouncing back to close out the series on the road in St. Louis.

Manson said the Avalanche learned some desperation from that sequence, but the stakes are higher in the final with the Stanley Cup in the building.

“I know how much our guys want it now: They’ve worked for it,” coach Jared Bednar said. “There’s a certain amount of stress and anxiety that you have to try to put out of your head so you can bring your best performance.”

The Lightning know all about those mental gymnastics, including some new tricks they’ve picked up this postseason. The Eastern Conference final was the first time they trailed a series since getting swept in the first round in 2019 — the defeat that set the course for this run — and had not fallen behind 3-1 until now.

Having already staved off elimination once, and armed with the experience of winning 11 consecutive series, coach Jon Cooper and his team know exactly what to expect from each side in Game 6.

“There’s no doubt we’re better equipped in these situations because you kind of feel (like) you put yourself in the shoes of the other teams, too, and what they must be thinking, what you’re thinking when you’re in these situations and how games played out,” Cooper said. “It’s experience. … And experience matters.”

Freshest for the Avalanche is the painful experience of blowing the chance to join the Lightning as the only teams over the past seven years to win the Cup at home. But previous playoff disappointments have steeled this core group to handle adversity, and in the immediate aftermath of their 3-2 loss in Game 5, leaders were already putting it in the rearview mirror.

“We’ll bounce right back,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said, pointing to the importance of having a short memory in the playoffs. “It’s a seven-game series. It’s not supposed to be easy, and it’s not going to be.”

Star center Nathan MacKinnon echoed that sentiment before the final started. He was glad the Lightning stood in Colorado’s way of winning the Cup because it was a fitting test of a champion.

There’s no bigger test than needing to cap it off on the road in Tampa.

One source of confidence for the Avalanche is their road success this postseason: 8-1, including a win and a loss at the Lightning. They can also look at Tampa Bay the past two years, St. Louis in 2019 and other previous champions who missed their first opportunity to close out the final and then shut the door and raised the Cup the next time out.

“We have belief in our room that we can win every game that we go out and play,” defenseman Devon Toews said. “Especially being the back-to-back champs, we know it’s going to take our best game in order to close this one out.”