DENVER - For first-time travellers to Colorado's biggest city, Denver offers a very walkable downtown core. Numbered streets allow for even the most navigationally-challenged to freely explore, while Ball Arena and Coors Field are both close enough to stroll to.
Then you get back to the entrance of your hotel and ZANG - it hits you. Your legs feel four times as heavy as they should, like you just got off a Stairmaster. At first, you're puzzled. Then you realize: It's the altitude, Stupid.
Denver is the 'Mile High City' for a reason and that increased elevation can wreak havoc on your conditioning (as a middle-aged sportswriter, mine is clearly elite...). It's a pretty good home-ice advantage for the Colorado Avalanche, who train at altitude and obviously got used to it long ago, but what about those who are new to the energy-sapping wrinkle?
Colorado defenseman Josh Manson was acquired from Anaheim before the trade deadline and getting used to his new surroundings did take some time, even though he's a pro athlete.
"I remember playing here when I was with Anaheim and it was a big deal," Manson said. "If you have an extended shift, you get off and start breathing thinking you're going to recover, but the recovery just doesn't come. It's almost like the air isn't really doing anything for you. My first week and a half after the trade, the practises felt tougher and everything felt a little more difficult. Once you settle in and acclimate, it makes a big difference for sure."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Avs have built a fast, powerful team that loves to push the pace of the game, something we certainly saw in Game 1, particularly in the first period when Tampa Bay seemed to be on their heels for long stretches. But the Bolts didn't wilt and managed to stage a comeback that pushed the game into overtime. Preparation helped.
"We got in early and had a really good hard practice the day before the game," said Lightning center Anthony Cirelli. "You just go out there and play, you don't even think about the effects. Especially this time of year; guys are giving it their all."
At this time of year, with the stakes as high as possible, it's understandable that the Bolts wouldn't admit to any altitude woes even if they did experience them: After all, you don't want to feed the Avs any secrets and you certainly don't want to seem like you're making excuses.
Based on how Game 1 went down, Tampa Bay's preparation seemed to do the trick; the Bolts didn't lose because they flagged late in the game; they lost early in overtime, when anyone can be a hero (in this case, Colorado's Andre Burakovsky). Nonetheless, the Lightning weren't letting on either way.
"It's not gonna change the way we approach the game," said defenseman Victor Hedman. "We're super-excited, having had two days to reflect on Game 1 and get prepared for the next one."
As for me, I'm a lot more aware of how many stairs I'm willing to climb around Ball Arena during Game 2.