Answering the biggest questions ahead of the Stanley Cup Final

NHL

The 2022 Stanley Cup Final is about to start Wednesday evening in Denver, and it guarantees to be one of the best matchups in recent memory. The Tampa Bay Lightning want to develop into the primary crew to three-peat because the New York Islanders gained 4 in a row from 1980 to 1983. The high-flying Colorado Avalanche are averaging 4.64 objective per sport, they usually wanted simply 14 video games to advance to the finals.

Who will get the perfect of the goalie matchup? How will accidents impression each groups? Who’re the gamers to pay probably the most consideration to? We requested our hockey consultants — Emily Kaplan, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski — these questions and extra forward of the beginning of the finals.

What are you most enthusiastic about on this postseason matchup?

Whereas we do not sometimes need to visitors in hyperbole, this matchup between the Lightning and the Avalanche is the best of the previous 20 years within the NHL.

It isn’t one through which an upstart crew is attempting to forestall a prohibitive favourite from successful the championship, as so many Stanley Cup finals are likely to development. No, this can be a battle between what clearly have been the 2 finest groups of the postseason. There is a galaxy of stars, a set of heroic position gamers and powerful teaching staffs on each groups. The Lightning and Avalanche excel on each ends of the ice, though every is a little bit higher on one finish than the opposite. Colorado’s 4.64 targets per sport common is the very best because the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 (minimal 14 video games). Tampa Bay leads the playoffs with a 2.41 objective in opposition to common in entrance of the perfect goalie on this planet in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Then there’s the narrative hook. The Lightning are attempting to develop into the primary NHL crew to three-peat because the Islanders gained their fourth straight in 1983. The Lightning are the sixth crew to win back-to-back Cups since then and the primary of the six to advance previous the second spherical following the second championship. To perform this in a salary-cap period is miraculous. The Avalanche, in the meantime, are attempting to win their first Cup since 2001. This crew of the Nathan MacKinnon period had been a playoff disappointment, failing to advance previous the second spherical in 4 straight postseasons. Now the Avs have damaged by way of. They usually’re attempting to emulate the 1984 Oilers, who defeated the Islanders within the Stanley Cup Ultimate: Finish one dynasty whereas beginning considered one of their very own.

However probably the most thrilling factor? That any prediction is a legitimate one and any consequence is comprehensible. The ESPN hockey household predicted a Lightning victory, however with solely 14 of 26 pundits backing that choose. The matchup is that shut. That is going to be a blast. — Greg Wyshynski


What has been the largest key to the Lightning having an opportunity at a three-peat?

Staff tradition. However that begins with how the crew was constructed. The Lightning constructed their championship crew by way of the draft, and their scouting division is due a ton of credit score for locating guys like Ondrej Palat (seventh spherical), Brayden Point (third spherical) and Anthony Cirelli (third spherical). Additionally credit score the crew’s growth and training staffs for setting these guys on the precise path. The crew is consistently strapped in opposition to the cap, forcing likable and gifted gamers out the door. However they repeatedly hit on free brokers and midseason pickups, as Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brandon Hagel and Nicholas Paul have match seamlessly into the lineup. It seems like character and position are simply as necessary to the Lightning as ability; it is why they will seemingly overpay for a participant like Hagel and be ok with it. He performs within the position he must carry out in — plain and easy.

Maybe an important component is the identification of the Lightning. Whereas we all the time assume they’re an offensive crew, their true expertise lies of their defensive construction. Stylistically, gamers all purchase in. And as soon as they clamped down in opposition to the Rangers, starting in the midst of Recreation 2 of the Japanese Convention finals, New York did not stand an opportunity. The blokes within the Lightning locker room love enjoying with one another and belief one another to fill their roles; that is a tradition that’s constructed over time and isn’t straightforward to duplicate. — Emily Kaplan


Who’re two gamers (one on every crew) you possibly can’t wait to observe within the finals?

I feel Anthony Cirelli has a star flip to return for the Lightning on this sequence. He’s beginning to be acknowledged as top-of-the-line defensive forwards within the sport, and his work this postseason has been elite. Cirelli has thrived in assignments that matched him in opposition to the opponent’s top-line heart. That résumé consists of Auston Matthews in Spherical 1, Aleksander Barkov within the second spherical and Mika Zibanejad within the convention finals. You could be positive Nathan MacKinnon is the subsequent man up for Cirelli, however Lightning coach Jon Cooper may need to attend till the video games in Tampa to really match up the traces.

On the Avs, I have been blown away by Cale Makar this postseason, and I am so excited to observe him stay. Makar dazzled us so many occasions through the common season — and along with his superb skating usually made it look easy — but he has someway appeared to up his sport through the playoffs. He’s going to be the man on this league for a few years, and this Ultimate must be an ideal showcase to a really massive viewers. — Kaplan


What are your ideas on the goalie matchup?

That is the Lightning’s most emphatic benefit within the sequence. After a tough first spherical in opposition to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .939 save proportion and a 1.81 targets in opposition to common at 5-on-5 in 10 video games. He closed out his much-hyped goalie duel in opposition to the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin with 4 straight wins and a .955 save proportion in these video games. Vasilevskiy’s standing as a better is known: He has 13 profession series-clinching wins and has stopped 219 of 221 photographs in his previous eight series-clinching victories.

There’s an inherent confidence within the Lightning due to the best way Vasilevskiy performs within the postseason. When adversity hits, everybody from the gamers to educate Jon Cooper will declare that Vasilevskiy is the least of their worries. That confidence is warranted and rewarded.

Saying the Avalanche have gained regardless of their goaltending is a bit harsh to Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz. It is kinder to say that they have not been the explanation the Avalanche have gained three rounds of the playoffs.

However it’s correct to say that Colorado’s protection has been more practical than its goaltending: The Avalanche have an anticipated targets charge of two.13 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, whereas their precise targets in opposition to per 60 is 2.47. Kuemper has a .897 save proportion for the postseason, together with .908 at even power. Francouz has a .906 postseason save proportion and a good .916 at even power. However metrically, Kuemper has a minus-4.4 targets save above common, which is the worst for any goalie who has performed not less than 10 video games this postseason.

The Avalanche say they’ve confidence in whoever performs within the Ultimate, noting the work Kuemper did within the common season and that Francouz has gained six straight video games within the playoffs, together with a 24-save shutout in opposition to the Oilers. However it pales compared to the boldness the Lightning have of their man. — Wyshynski


Who’re among the skaters which are key to their crew’s success?

Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche: MacKinnon has 18 factors in 14 playoff video games, together with 11 targets, which is the very best complete for anybody within the Ultimate. The key to his success is shot quantity: MacKinnon’s 16.7 photographs per 60 minutes in all conditions is the very best charge within the postseason. His drive to succeed and depth are legendary amongst his teammates; he by no means takes a observe off, not to mention a sport.

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche: The captain of the Avalanche has 17 factors in 14 video games. They’ve had him enjoying up with MacKinnon just lately, though Colorado additionally has performed him on a second line with Nazem Kadri when he’s wholesome. Landeskog’s physicality is an asset.

Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche: The Finnish winger has 17 factors in 14 video games, together with 12 assists, finest amongst Colorado forwards. He has been on a heater these days, with factors in 9 of his previous 10 video games. He could possibly be a game-breaker on this sequence.

Devon Toews, Avalanche: Emily talked about Cale Makar, so let’s give attention to his defensive accomplice. As a duo, Toews and Makar had been deployed in opposition to Connor McDavid within the Edmonton sequence, and Colorado often had the higher of play at 5-on-5. Whereas Toews is finest referred to as the “defensive defenseman” within the pairing with Makar, Toews additionally has 13 factors in 14 video games. It has been that sort of run for the Avs.

Steven Stamkos, Lightning: The captain has 9 targets and 6 assists within the playoffs. He was a difference-maker within the Japanese Convention finals with 4 targets, together with Tampa Bay’s solely two targets within the Recreation 6 clincher. Avalanche common supervisor Joe Sakic, who captained Colorado to 2 Stanley Cup wins as a participant, praised Stamkos’ poise and management.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: With 23 factors in 17 video games, Tampa Bay’s scoring chief is often the pacesetter for the way the Lightning play. When he is on, the bench takes discover. His 1.35 factors per sport ranks fourth amongst gamers with not less than 10 postseason video games. A superb passer who may rating targets with the perfect of them.

Ondrej Palat, Lightning: There was a second through the convention finals when somebody referred to Palat as a key position participant however not a star participant. “Who says he is not a star?” snapped Tampa Bay winger Pat Maroon. “We predict he is a star.” Whereas he is not a family title, Palat has starred for the Lightning in these playoffs with 16 factors in 17 video games. That features game-winning targets in two of the victories over the Rangers, each scored with lower than two minutes left in regulation.

Victor Hedman, Lightning: This was the sixth straight season that Hedman was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s finest defenseman. He has gained the award solely as soon as, which is a little bit baffling given his dominance at each ends of the ice. However he does have one other necessary piece of {hardware}: the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’ll should be at his finest to assist gas the Lightning offense — he has 14 factors in 17 video games — and assist shut down the MacKinnon line. — Wyshynski


How massive of an impression will house ice play on this sequence?

I am typically a proponent of chaos principle within the Stanley Cup Ultimate. What has occurred earlier than by no means performs as massive a task as you suppose it is going to. The extent of desperation usually trumps any developments we have seen in prior sequence.

Nevertheless, it is value noting that each groups have been exceptionally good at house. Tampa Bay is 7-1 in its constructing and hasn’t misplaced there since Recreation 3 of the primary spherical in opposition to Toronto. Colorado is 5-2 at house, placing the Avalanche’s solely two losses of your entire postseason on house ice. At first look, that will give the Lightning a bonus; Amalie Area patrons had been handled to a Ultimate final season, and they’re going to undoubtedly convey much more vitality this time round.

However the Avalanche trustworthy have been ready for this second since 2001. There are seats in Ball Area going for $10,000 on the open market. If a crowd that passionate and hungry for a long-awaited Cup win cannot present an additional enhance, one thing is flawed.

Colorado earned home-ice benefit, and I feel it is going to play an element. Whether or not that is at first of the sequence or on the finish, we’ll discover out. However simply think about what a Recreation 7 in Denver may feel and appear like, based mostly on how intense the followers had been in Video games 1 and a couple of of the Western Convention finals. That is the place the distinction may actually be felt. — Kristen Shilton


Some under-the-radar gamers you will be listening to?

J.T. Compher, Avalanche. Within the quick time period, the Avalanche heart was tasked with attempting to fill the void left by injured heart Nazem Kadri. However general, Compher has been considered one of their rising goal-scoring threats over the previous few weeks. He scored two targets in Recreation 6 in opposition to the St. Louis Blues; two extra in Recreation 1 in opposition to the Oilers; after which the game-winning objective in Recreation 3 in Edmonton that each one however ended the sequence.

Artturi Lehkonen, Avalanche. The middle was one of many smartest commerce deadline acquisitions for any crew this season, and his impression has been fast. Lehkonen has six targets and 5 assists within the playoffs, together with the extra time winner in Recreation 4 to finish the sweep of Edmonton.

Pat Maroon, Lightning. Whereas the Lightning are going for a three-peat, Maroon is his personal dynasty. The pugnacious ahead is searching for his fourth straight Stanley Cup and sixteenth straight playoff-round victory between the Blues in 2019 and the previous three seasons with the Lightning. Maroon is likely one of the most bodily gamers on Tampa Bay, with an unmatched skill to speak trash, and he can also rating the occasional massive objective. Contained in the locker room, he is likely one of the most revered voices on the crew. A real character in a league that would use extra of them.

Brandon Hagel, Lightning. Hagel has discovered a house on Tampa Bay’s newly fashioned checking line with Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Their efficient play hasn’t translated into factors — Hagel has one objective in his previous 11 video games — however he had 25 within the common season. If among the Lightning’s nice protection turns into counterpunch alternatives on offense, Hagel may benefit. — Wyshynski


What can the Avs do if Nazem Kadri does not return?

Colorado’s contingency plan with out Kadri (thumb) actually comes right down to depth. The Avalanche challenge to have gamers who can carve out bigger roles; it is only a less-than-ideal time within the season to experiment with such issues. However accidents occur; what are you able to do?

The power to maneuver Mikko Rantanen to heart is an efficient begin. That opens a winger slot for Andre Burakovsky within the high six and permits Valeri Nichushkin to get a glance on the highest line with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Nichushkin has had an underrated postseason so far, producing 9 factors in 14 video games, and he could possibly be a game-changer for Colorado if Kadri cannot come again.

Then there’s Artturi Lehkonen, the hero of Recreation 4 in Edmonton. He crammed in for Kadri on the Avalanche’s power-play unit in that clincher, and the person benefit went 2-for-2. In all probability not a coincidence. GM Joe Sakic constructed Colorado to have a robust basis, and that is what ought to permit them to climate the lack of Kadri all through the finals, if essential.

And naturally, there’s Cale Makar. He’s principally an additional ahead in addition to an elite defender, and that is going to mitigate among the loss felt in Kadri’s absence.

If there is a vivid spot on the Kadri entrance, although, it is that he appears to be trending towards a return in some unspecified time in the future. Kadri has been within the fitness center and resumed skating — albeit with no stick — and coach Jared Bednar hasn’t dominated him out for Recreation 1 (though it is extremely unlikely he’ll play then). The underside line is there’s room to be optimistic about Kadri coming again. — Shilton


What can the Lightning count on out of Brayden Level?

It is powerful to say. Level suffered a lower-body damage in Recreation 7 of the primary spherical. Jon Cooper advised me that with an analogous damage within the common season, the anticipated timeline could be 4 to 6 weeks, and we’re simply on the entrance finish of that now. Level has labored extraordinarily laborious in rehab to get to this place, and I get the sense he would have performed Recreation 7 of the convention finals had the sequence gone again to New York. Cooper mentioned Tuesday that Point could play in Game 1.

Cooper additionally advised me this example is not fairly like Steven Stamkos in 2020, when the captain suited up as a result of he wished to present himself an opportunity, even realizing he had the potential of aggravating the damage. Level is not on the similar threat.

The primary few occasions I watched Level skate over the previous two weeks, it was clear he wasn’t snug, and he spilled into the boards not less than twice. He has appeared a lot smoother prior to now few days, however doing line rushes throughout observe and enjoying at sport pace are two very various things. — Kaplan


Who scores probably the most targets within the Stanley Cup Ultimate? Most factors?

Most Factors: Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning winger is an offensive gem for them at 5-on-5 and on the facility play. His 1.35 factors per sport leads the crew, and there is not any purpose to count on that tempo to gradual in opposition to the Avalanche’s goaltending.

Most Targets: Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche heart is averaging 1.71 anticipated targets per 60 minutes of play in any respect strengths. A participant with 11 targets in 14 video games with MacKinnon’s shot quantity ought to have the ability to do it for another spherical. — Wyshynski


What’s your Cup choose and why?

I picked the Avalanche in seven video games. There are a few causes for that:

The primary is that Colorado has been dominant all through the postseason. Whereas Tampa Bay has efficiently — and unsurprisingly — dealt with its ups and downs, there have not been many downs in any respect for the Avalanche. Even in video games Colorado did not play particularly nicely, the Avs discovered a technique to get the job completed — and quick. Sweeping the Nashville Predators possibly wasn’t an enormous shock. However making Edmonton look so meager? That was an eye-opener. Colorado is legit.

The second purpose I am bullish on the Avalanche is that this simply seems like their second. Once more, the Lightning are an unimaginable crew and will simply as simply show me flawed. Colorado has been disenchanted and pissed off by its shortcomings the previous couple of seasons. The drive to lastly break by way of and never let this chance slip is palpable. The Avalanche appear to understand they’ve the confluence of expertise and alternative proper now. And possibly that can create a smidgen extra confidence and audacity that can push Colorado previous the defending champs. — Shilton


Earlier than the season, I picked the Avs over the Lightning within the Ultimate, so I caught with it for consistency. I feel that is going to be tight. I actually really feel it is going seven video games. And I imagine if Colorado wins, it is Cale Makar who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy. — Kaplan


My Stanley Cup playoff prognostications have been an abject embarrassment this season, as you possibly can little doubt inform by the shortage of championships for each my preseason choose, the Islanders, and my postseason choose, the Florida Panthers. So congratulations or I am sorry to the Colorado Avalanche, whom I’ve prognosticated to win the Cup in six video games.

The Avalanche have been a steamroller all postseason due to their scoring depth and their blazing pace, which I feel goes to be powerful for the Lightning to decelerate. The Avs have actually discovered their groove at even power within the playoffs (2.91 anticipated targets per 60). The Lightning are an elite defensive crew with the world’s finest goaltender, and that gave me important pause in making this choose. However I really imagine this Colorado crew is fabricated from sterner stuff than the Leafs, Panthers and Rangers groups that wilted below adversity whereas the veteran Lightning embraced it. The Avs are quite a bit just like the Lightning in that means: studying from previous errors to grasp tips on how to win within the playoffs.

However boy are the Avalanche going to want a save from any individual. {Dollars} to doughnuts, I guess it finally ends up being Pavel Francouz successful the day. — Wyshynski

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