At an alligator farm just outside of Tampa a few years ago, the proprietor told me the animals are like "exploding logs." They will lull you into complacency with their utter stillness, not moving even a twitch for hours at a time. Then, boom. You're done.
The exploding logs that were the Tampa Bay Lightning struck quick and lethally against the host Colorado Avalanche, scoring four goals in a span of four minutes, 10 seconds en route to their seventh straight victory and league-leading 24th of the season, 6-5.
This really didn't feel like a blowout game, but that's what the scoreboard said early in the third period, when Tampa Bay built a 5-1 lead before the Avs did a little exploding of their own. The third period was the most exciting 20 minutes of the season, probably for both teams.
The Avs outplayed the Bolts for good portions of this game - just like they did in Tampa last week - but they just couldn't finish their chances early on, when a bounce or two and this could have been a much different game.
Peter Budaj must be loving life again. Long one of the NHL's most average goalies, a goalie on many poor teams, the former Av just has to throw his pads out on the ice to win for Tampa Bay. Budaj did, though, make some tough saves early to keep it a scoreless game after one period, his best stop being a desperation pad stop of Matt Nieto's chance in close.
The game entered the mid-point of the second period, still scoreless when...the log exploded. Nikita Kucherov, Anton Stralman, Victor Hedman and Yanni Gourde all scored from the 9:11-to-13:21 mark against goalie Jonathan Bernier.
The Lightning did its biggest damage on a 4-on-4, after Blake Comeau and Cory Conacher were each sent off for roughing at the 8:20 mark. The Bolts have burned a lot of teams with set-piece stretch-passing plays, and that's how they scored their first goal.
Jared Bednar obviously was happy at the fight his team showed in the third. But asked what he'll take away most from this game, it'll be that 4-on-4 stretch - and he didn't exempt himself from blame either.
"We haven't practiced it (4-on-4) a lot," Bednar said. See his post-game comments here:
Hedman gathered a puck and skated back to his own blue line, then hit Kucherov with a quick pass up the middle at the Avs' blue line. Anton Lindholm was burned on the pass, and Kucherov skated in alone to beat Bernier clean. Stralman scored on the ensuing shift, after Bernier fumbled a puck and left it sitting in the crease.
Hedman and Gourde scored to make it 4-0, which is when Avs captain Gabe Landeskog, and later, Nathan MacKinnon, decided to personally make this a respectable game on the scoreboard. Landy scored his second hat trick of the season, including a power-play goal that actually did make this still a hockey game, with plenty of time left in the third.
Then, MacKinnon scored a sensational goal, and suddenly it seemed as if the force was with the Avs on this, Star Wars Night.
But some sloppy play led to another Lightning goal to make it 6-4. MacKinnon scored again, though, with 5:46 left to send the fans into pure joy, tipping in Nikita Zadorov's great wrist shot. Could the Avs really come all the way back in this thing?
The answer proved to be no, but what a third period it was. Landeskog had a beauty of a chance with about 45 seconds left, a one-timer off his knee from the left circle. But Budaj made a big save. Despite five points in the game, Landeskog was downbeat afterward.
"We got too puck-focused in that 4-on-4," Avs D-man Mark Barberio said. "We probably would have been better playing short-handed. We were better on (the PK) than that."
The Avs lost Erik Johnson to a game-misconduct penalty at 16:57 of the second, after he pushed Vladislav Namestnikov into the boards from just beyond the goal line. Namestnikov looked seriously hurt after crashing into the boards, staying down for at least a minute.
This is how the NHL works folks: If a guy goes into the boards and looks really hurt, referees are going to assume he really is badly hurt. So, while Namestnikov was still down and the crowd was hushed, referees slapped a five-minute major on Johnson.
What do you know? Namestnikov was back on the ice just a couple minutes later, taking part in the power play. The Avs' best defenseman, though, was done for the night. Yeah, Johnson pushed him, but it was far away from the boards and the truth is Namestnikov lost an edge. But that's hockey. I asked to speak with Johnson after the game, but the Avs said he would not be made available.
Bednar played the "I haven't seen the replay card" that coaches are basically mandated by the NHL to say, unless they want to write out a big check to Gary Bettman.
The better team won, but the encouraging thing is that the Avs again hung right with the best team in the league and were led by their young stars in the unexpected third-period comeback.
One of these days, and it might be relatively soon, the Avs will win these kinds of games.