Lightning’s season on the brink after overtime loss to Avalanche in Game 4

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TAMPA — Jon Cooper rarely struggles to find the right words, but the Lightning coach stepped to the podium late Wednesday and waged a visible battle with his emotions while gathering his thoughts.

His team’s dream of making history now hangs by a thread, the Lightning on the brink of losing the Stanley Cup final with a 3-2 overtime loss to the Avalanche in Game 4 at Amalie Arena.

The Avalanche lead the series three games to one. Game 5 is Friday at Denver.

The Lightning had their opportunities to win, dominating the Avalanche early while taking a quick lead, but they couldn’t put the Avalanche away. They battled injuries into overtime, playing with just five healthy defensemen a good chunk of the night.

And moments after watching Colorado celebrate following forward Nazem Kadri’s goal with 7:58 remaining in overtime, Cooper was distraught.

Cooper didn’t provide details for his view, but the Lightning believed Kadri’s goal was scored with too many Colorado men on the ice. Screen shots showed six Colorado skaters were on the ice as Kadri closed in on the goal before beating Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. A video angle also showed forward Nathan MacKinnon going slowly to the bench after Kadri jumped over the boards.

Despite wearing the bull’s-eye that comes with chasing a three-peat, the Lightning still play with a chip on their shoulder and never make excuses.

“It’s extremely tough to get to this position,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “And then when your backs are against the wall at the end, it’s the toughest mountain to climb. There’s nothing to lose now. We’ve got to go out and have the game of our season next game.

“We know it’s going to be difficult. We know they’re a heck of a team over there, but we’re not going to quit. We’ve gone too far and guys have sacrificed so much to get to this position. So we’ll regroup here and go win a game on the road.”

The Lightning have faced similar adversity — they trailed Toronto this year in the first round 3-2 in the series — but have never been down 3-1.

“Being down 3-1, we haven’t seen that before,” said defenseman Victor Hedman, who put the Lightning up 2-1 with a backhand goal midway though the second period. “But if there’s one thing I know about this group it’s that we respond well to adversity.

“We’re a resilient group. We believe in what we have. We’ll take it game by game. There are ups and downs in the playoffs, especially in the final like this. This is a tough one to swallow.”

The Lightning had their best start of the series, dominating the Avalanche. While they outshot Colorado 17-4 in the first period — including 15-2 in 5-on-5 situations — they came away with just a 1-0 lead against goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who was back in net following a second-period hook in Game 3.

Vasilevskiy was impressive, especially during an overtime period in which he made 10 saves, among them a stop of forward Logan O’Connor on a breakaway.

The Avalanche seemed to gain momentum as the game went on, especially with the Lightning playing with just five healthy defensemen when Erik Cernak left due to injury.

Kadri’s last shift was just 11 seconds long, indicating he was the last player onto the ice. He gained a step on defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who logged 32:50 of ice time in the game, before beating Vasilevskiy along his blocker side.

The puck got stuck inside the net at the top back, which led to some delayed reactions.

“I didn’t see it go in,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “I saw (Kadri) sort of break in and cut through that seam. Then he made a great move to kind of slip (the puck) inside the stick. … Replays show it go in. I didn’t hear any confusion.”

A statement from NHL Hockey Operations said “a too many men on the ice penalty is a judgement call that can be made by any of the four on-ice officials. ... In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too many men on the ice situation on the play.”

The Lightning face the biggest challenge of their drive to three straight Cups.

“We can’t just sit here and feel sorry for ourselves,” Stamkos said. “That was a hard-fought game. Guys are sacrificing a lot in terms of their bodies, and it stings right now. But we’ve got to go there, win a hockey game and bring it back here.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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