20 players to watch as the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning play for the Stanley Cup

·6 min read

The Tampa Bay Lightning's third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Final might be the most impressive because it was done after a salary cap-necessitated reshuffling.

“This group is pretty amazing, pretty special,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “You know the talk all season, we lost some guys and guys just came in and played unbelievable. Made some moves at the deadline and those guys have been instrumental.”

The Lightning lost the third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, plus forward Tyler Johnson. They rebuilt their bottom six by adding Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the offseason, plus Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Riley Nash at the deadline.

That group joined an impressive core that will seek to become the first team since the 1980s to win three consecutive Stanley Cups. The highly skilled Colorado Avalanche stand in the way, with the Final starting in Denver on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ABC).

Ranking the top 20 players to watch in the Stanley Cup Final:

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Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has a 2.27 goals-against average in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has a 2.27 goals-against average in the playoffs.

1. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning: The money goaltender gave up at least three goals in his first six playoff games. But outside Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, he has been dialed in since, including giving up three goals in a second-round sweep of the No. 1 overall Florida Panthers. He'll be the toughest goaltender the Avalanche have faced.

2. Defenseman Cale Makar, Avalanche: He's averaging 1.57 points a game, aided by five points in the Game 4 clincher against the Oilers. The Norris Trophy finalist leads Colorado in ice time, runs the power play and is dangerous on the offensive rush, but also is on the top penalty-killing unit.

3. Stamkos, Lightning: He defines doing whatever it takes to win. He blocks shots, scores key goals and even got into a fight. Sitting in the penalty box when the Rangers tied Game 6, he scored the game-winner 21 seconds later.

4. Forward Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche: His playoff hat trick was capped by a spectacular end-to-end rush. He also has solid possession numbers.

5. Forward Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: He has led the playoffs in scoring the last two seasons. He has a shot to make it three in a row.

6. Defenseman Victor Hedman, Lightning: He is a Norris Trophy finalist six years running and was playoff MVP in 2020.

7. Forward Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche: He provides leadership and physical play, plus is tied for third on the team in playoff points. That's why getting him locked in for eight years was the team's top priority last offseason.

8. Forward Anthony Cirelli, Lightning: Cirelli, who finished fifth in Selke Trophy voting, has been matched up against the opponent's top centers. His line with Alex Killorn and Hagel will be tasked with trying to shut down the MacKinnon line.

9. Forward Artturi Lehkonen, Avalanche: He was an under-the-radar trade deadline acquisition from the Montreal Canadiens. In addition to his penalty killing, he has been a clutch scorer with three game-winning goals, including the overtime goal that got the Avalanche into the Final.

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10. Forward Ondrej Palat, Lightning: He has scored two game-winning goals in the final two minutes of a game. The pending unrestricted free agent averages 0.67 points per game in the playoffs.

11. Forward Brayden Point, Lightning: He led the Lightning in goals during their two Cup runs but he hasn't played since being hurt in Game 7 of the first round. He practiced on the third line and the first power-play unit on Tuesday. Coach Jon Cooper told NHL Network that he wanted to see how Point felt Wednesday morning before deciding his availability for Game 1.

12. Forward Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche: After going the first seven games without a goal, he has five goals in his last seven. He moved to the No. 2 center role with Nazem Kadri out because of thumb surgery.

13. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Lightning: Not flashy, just steady. He kills penalties and leads the team with 50 blocked shots.

14. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, Lightning: He plays more than 21 minutes a game. He had a big Game 5 against the Rangers with a goal and assist.

15. Defenseman Devon Toews, Avalanche: He makes it possible for defensive partner Makar to go, but he puts up solid offensive numbers, too. The Makar-Toews pairing is usually used against the opponent's top line.

16. Forward Valeri Nichushkin, Avalanche: He was bought out by the Dallas Stars in 2019 and has spent the last three seasons in Colorado. The pending free agent had a career-high 52 points in the regular season and is having a strong playoffs.

17. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper, Avalanche: He has been injured twice during these playoffs and can't match Vasilevskiy (.897 save percentage vs. .928). But with the offense in front of Kuemper, the Avalanche don't need him to win games on his own. Just don't lose one because of a mistake. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar didn't announce his Game 1 start

18. Defenseman Erik Johnson, Avalanche: Like McDonagh, he's steady, not flashy. The former No. 1 overall pick has been with the Avs since 2010-11 and has never won a Cup. Will he be the second person to be handed the Cup if the Avalanche win?

19. Perry, Lightning: He has reached the Final three years in a row with different teams. He won a Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. His pesky play is as important as his five playoff goals.

20. Forward Pat Maroon, Lightning: As Tampa Bay seeks a third consecutive title, he's going for four in a row, having won with St. Louis in 2019. He doesn't get a lot of ice time, but he's noticeable during his shifts.

HONORABLE MENTION

Kadri, Avalanche: He'd be high on this list if healthy. Known for his feistiness and scoring touch, the pending free agent has avoided the suspensions that had plagued him in prior playoffs. He had hand surgery in the conference final but might be able to play later in the series.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Stanley Cup Finals: Top 20 players as Lightning face Avalanche