Stanley Cup Final Preview: Colorado-Tampa Bay

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COLORADO AVALANCHE (C1) VERSUS TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (A3)

The Tampa Bay Lightning will play in the Stanley Cup Final for a third straight year after winning the previous two championships. The Lightning won four straight matches to eliminate the New York Rangers in six games during the Eastern Conference Final. The Colorado Avalanche defeated the Edmonton Oilers in four straight games during the Western Conference Final to advance to the Cup Final for the first time since 2001. The Avalanche won the Cup that year in a seven-game series against New Jersey to prevent the Devils from winning a second straight title.

The Lightning will aim to be the first team to win three straight Stanley Cups since the New York Islanders captured four in a row from 1980-83. Tampa Bay defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opening round during a seven-game slugfest prior to sweeping the Florida Panthers in Round 2

Colorado has completed two sweeps during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final, including a four-game series versus the Nashville Predators in the first round. The Avalanche eliminated the St. Louis Blues in six contests during the second round of the postseason. It will be eight days between games when the Avalanche take to the ice to start the Stanley Cup Final.

Tampa Bay could get a boost in the championship series with the potential return of Brayden Point to the lineup from a lower-body injury. He hasn’t played since Game 7 of the first round on May 14 when he was injured against the Leafs. The Lightning have performed very well without him in the previous two series, but getting him back would strengthen the team’s top-six forward group. Point can produce and he can help the Lightning neutralize the best players on the opposition.

Nikita Kucherov leads Tampa Bay with 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in 17 matches this postseason. Ondrej Palat has supplied 16 points (eight goals, eight assists), while Steven Stamkos has 15 points and a team-leading nine goals. Victor Hedman is close behind with 14 points (two goals, 12 assists). Ross Colton (five goals, three assists) and Corey Perry (five goals, three assists) have eight points apiece, while Nick Paul (three goals, four assists) and Mikhail Sergachev (one goal, six assists) have chipped in seven points each for some additional depth scoring.

Colorado has some injury question marks up front as well going into the Stanley Cup Final. Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano underwent surgery for hand injuries that were suffered during the West Final. It is currently unclear when they will be available for returns. but the team is hopeful that they can play at some point in the Cup Final. Kadri checks several of the same boxes for the Avalanche that Point does for the Lightning, especially when it comes to his ability to score and shutdown opponents.

Colorado has been led offensively by Cale Makar, who has compiled 22 points in 14 appearances. He also tops the team wth 17 assists. Nathan MacKinnon has accounted for 18 points, including a team-high 11 goals. Gabriel Landeskog (eight goals, nine assists) and Mikko Rantanen (five goals, 12 assists) have 17 points each. Kadri has supplied 14 points (six goals, eight assists), while Devon Toews (five goals, eight assists) and Artturi Lehkonen (six goals, five assists) have 13 and 11 points, respectively. Valeri Nichushkin (five goals, four assists), J.T. Compher (five goals, two assists) and Bowen Byram (seven assists) have provided some depth scoring.

Andrei Vasilevskiy turned aside 106 of 111 shots for a .955 save percentage in four games to close out the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final. He surrendered just one goal against in each of the final three contests of the series. Vasilevskiy has a 2.27 goals-against average and .928 SV% this postseason through 17 starts. His ability to rebound from losses and his tendency to get stronger as the series progresses have been hallmarks of his dominance for a third straight playoffs.

Pavel Francouz was in net for all four wins during the Western Conference Final against the Oilers. He picked up the victory in relief when Darcy Kuemper was injured in the series opener and then he started the next three contests. Francouz has a 6-0 record this postseason with a 2.86 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. Kuemper, who is back to full health after recovering from an upper-body ailment, has gone 6-2 with a 2.65 GAA and .897 SV% during the 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His numbers have dipped from the regular season, but a couple of injuries and gaps between starts are likely more to blame than anything.

Colorado coach Jared Bednar has faith in both goaltenders and his decision on a starter for Game 1 of the Cup Final is a mystery at this time. Still, it would be a surprise if Kuemper wasn’t between the pipes on Wednesday night. Francouz has been a good fallback option, but Kuemper is the No. 1 netminder and he should be playing if he’s available.

Tampa Bay has the edge in the crease regardless of who plays for Colorado, but Kuemper and Francouz don’t necessarily have to stand on their heads for the Avalanche to emerge victorious. They just have to make sure that they don’t lose the series by giving up softies or allowing untimely goals against. Vasilevskiy, who earned the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2021, has been red hot since a shaky start to the postseason and he outdueled Vezina Trophy favorite Igor Shesterkin in the East Final. He represents a big challenge for any team, especially come playoff time.

Colorado will look to overcome that advantage with an offense that has been firing on all cylinders this postseason. The team’s depth and the two-way play of their defense corps have served them very well during this postseason run. Tampa Bay will be Colorado’s stiffest competition in what should be a long, highly-competitive series between two teams loaded with star power. The top players on the Lightning have figured prominently, just like Colorado’s have, and both teams have benefited from production up and down their lineups.

Tampa Bay is staring a potential dynasty in the face, while Colorado has garnered plenty of attention as a Stanley Cup favorite for the past five seasons. The previous four years were met with disappointment for the Avalanche in brief playoff appearances, but they got over the hump this time and will look to end what has been an incredible run for Tampa Bay. Colorado and the Lightning both appear to be on the cusp of achieving something special, which is what makes this matchup all the more special.

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Players to Watch

Ondrej Palat - Palat concluded the Eastern Conference Final with three goals and four assists over a four-game point streak. He scored two game-winning goals late in the third period during that span. Palat has five of his eight goals and 11 of his 16 points in his past nine outings. He has been excellent on the top line with Kucherov and Stamkos.

Anthony Cirelli - Cirelli has gone four games without a point going into the Stanley Cup Final. He had four assists across a three-game point streak before that, but it’s been a quiet postseason for him offensively. Cirelli has one goal and four assists in 17 contests. However, he has been instrumental in Tampa Bay’s shutdown efforts and he will attempt to slow down MacKinnon in this series.

Devon Toews - Makar has attracted plenty of attention in the playoffs, and rightfully so, but Toews has been outstanding as well. He has formed a great defense pairing with Makar, while contributing at both ends of the ice. Toews earned one goal and four assists during the Western Conference Final to give him two markers and six helpers in his past seven matches.

Andre Burakovsky - Burakovsky only has one goal in 10 games this postseason. He has missed games as a healthy scratch and due to injury. Burakovsky has been improving from an ailment he suffered in the Western Conference Final on a shot block ahead of Wednesday’s series opener. He enjoyed a career-year during the regular season with 22 goals and 61 points in 80 games. Burakovsky is capable of making more of an impact offensively in the Stanley Cup Final.

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Additional Series Notes

Colorado blueliner Samuel Girard won’t be available for the Stanley Cup Final after he suffered a broken sternum in Game 3 of Round 2 versus St. Louis.

Tampa Bay is tied for the second-most Stanley Cup Final appearances (five) since 1992-93. Colorado has three.

The Lightning became the third team in NHL history to win 11 or more consecutive playoff series.

Colorado has lost just two times, while posting a record of 12-2, this postseason.

The Avalanche lead the playoffs with 4.64 goals for per game played. Tampa Bay ranks eighth (3.06).

The Lightning have surrendered just 2.41 goals against per game played. Only Dallas (2.14) ranks higher and they were eliminated in the first round. Colorado is tied for third (2.86).

The Avalanche have allowed 29 goals against at 5-on-5, while the Lightning have surrendered 24 and have played in three more contests.

Colorado’s power play has scored 14 times, while posting a 31.1% success rate. Tampa Bay has scored 14 times on the man advantage as well, but have done so over 62 opportunities compared to 45 for a power-play percentage of 22.6%.

Tampa Bay’s penalty kill has permitted 10 goals against, while being shorthanded 57 times (82.5%). The Avalanche have give up nine power-play goals against, while being down a man 37 times (75.7%).

The Lightning have a playoff-high six wins when leading after the first period. The Avalanche have four, but lead the postseason with eight victories when leading after two periods. Tampa Bay has six wins in those circumstances.

Tampa Bay also leads the playoffs with nine wins when scoring the first goal of the game. Colorado has six.

The Avalanche have trailed first seven times in the postseason, but have managed to battle back for six wins. The Lightning have won three of six when trailing first.

Colorado has 36.35 hits per 60 minutes in the postseason. Tampa Bay isn’t far behind with 35.66 hits per 60.

The Lightning have 15.78 blocks per 60 minutes this playoffs, while the Avalanche have been credited with 14.35 blocks per 60.

Colorado only has 5.85 giveaways per 60 minutes, while Tampa Bay has posted 9.19.