TAMPA BAY — The Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the New York Rangers and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third straight season, with the Colorado Avalanche rested and ready for Game 1 (Wednesday, August 8). HE, ESPN).
Here are five things we’ve learned about the Lightning so far in their 2022 postseason journey and what they mean for the final showdown.
The treble is within reach
The NHL hasn’t had a three-time Stanley Cup champion team since 1983, when the New York Islanders ended their dynasty. Since then, six other teams have won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Five of them failed to make it past the second round until the Lightning won the East this season.
“You don’t get those chances often. They don’t come. It’s like we’ve seen the top of the mountain. Let’s keep going for more,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
It’s a classic Stanley Cup matchup: the Colorado Avalanche, finally trying to break through to win their first Cup since 2001 after a few years as one of the top contenders; and the Lightning, now just four wins away from an unprecedented feat in the NHL’s salary cap era, which began in 2005.
“To get there the first time was a dream come true. To get there a second time, the following year, was a dream too. There was no going back. To go there a third time is amazing,” said said Cooper. “To see their growth, to see the pain…I’m totally impressed with what they do to win a hockey game. No one would blame them for saying “hey, we won one or two. But go get a third? I’m damn impressed.
To win a third consecutive Cup, the Lightning will have to defeat what Stamkos considers the best team in the NHL.
“Colorado? Probably the best team in the league,” Stamkos said. “As you progress through the playoffs, each round gets tougher and each opponent gets tougher. There’s a reason there are two teams left, and that’s because they’re the two best teams. We’re going to have our hands full.”
(Mostly) old faces, same success
The Avalanche face a Lightning team whose core is essentially the same as teams that have won back-to-back Cups.
Tampa Bay is powered by stars:
Center Steven Stamkos, team captain with 481 career goals
Winger Nikita Kucherov, former league MVP and playoff leading scorer
Center Brayden Point, who missed nearly two rounds with injury but has scored more playoff goals than any other player in the past three playoffs
Defenseman Victor Hedman, nominated for six straight seasons for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman, and playoff MVP in 2020
Defender Ryan McDonagh, a stable veteran
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy named 2021 playoff MVP
They are supported by a cast of returning characters which includes winger Ondrej Palat, who scored two game-winning goals against Rangers; tough forwards Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon, who is trying to play on his fourth straight Cup winner; defensive center ace Anthony Cirelli, who ended the Rangers front line; and Mikhail Sergachev’s smooth-skating defense.
One of the most impressive things about this race? That the Lightning have lost their entire line of control and some key players from the last two Cup wins; replaced them with veteran off-season pickups (Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) and trade deadline acquisitions (Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul); and haven’t missed a thing.
“We were looking for an adjustment,” said general manager Julien BriseBois. “We’re looking for guys who have pride and ambition. Pride is what’s going to drive you to keep pushing yourself when things aren’t going well for you. Ambition is going to fuel your continued success. You’re still hungry for more.”
Kucherov is the elite
Both the Avalanche and the Lightning have elite skaters who can take control of games. Kucherov is the leader of them. Kucherov has 23 points in 17 games, split fairly evenly between 5-on-5 and the power play. No NHL player has scored more points than Kucherov in the last three playoffs. Although his scoring prowess is elite, it’s his ability to play and distribute the puck that allows him to rack up the points.
Look no further than the conference finals. His perfect touch pass to Ondrej Palat set up the Game 3 winning goal, with the whole arena thinking about extra time. In Game 6, his pass to Stamkos as the captain headed for the net set up the series-clinching goal.
He is a pacemaker for the Lightning. When he’s confident and rolling offensively, they notice. “You can hear the chatter on the bench when he comes out [the ice]. Guys know your best player is ‘active’ in a huge game,” Stamkos said.
If the Lightning win a third consecutive Stanley Cup, it could be Kucherov’s turn to lift the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Can the Avs beat Vasilevskiy?
Colorado took a few goalie breaks this postseason. The Nashville Predators were without an injured starter Juuse Saros. The St. Louis Blues lost a resurgent Jordan Binnington to injury in Game 3. And Edmonton Oilers goaltender Mike Smith was… well, Mike Smith.
The opposing goaltenders have a combined .886 save percentage against the Avalanche in the playoffs. But barring the unexpected, the Avalanche will face their toughest goaltender competition in the Stanley Cup Final – and the player many consider the best goaltender in the world.
The playoffs didn’t start well for Vasilevskiy, as he allowed 22 goals in seven games for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But he was great when it mattered most, stopping 30 of 31 shots in Game 7. Apart from a setback in Game 1 against Rangers after a nine-day layoff, Vasilevskiy was absolutely dominant. As coach Jon Cooper said, he found “his mojo” as the playoffs progressed.
In Vasilevskiy, the Avalanche face one of the greatest playoff goaltenders in NHL history. It’s not just how good he is, it’s when he’s at his best: In 23 decisive games in the previous series, Vasilevskiy had a 1.65 goals-against average and six shutouts. A third consecutive Stanley Cup could solidify his legacy as one of the greatest of all time.
“When we look back, when we get older, it’s going to be something that will stick around for a long time. It’s pretty cool to play with a player who’s going to be one of the best to ever play the game,” Killorn said. said. “That’s how you rate players: how they play in big games. He’s been nothing but great in those games.”
This adaptability to the championship
During their run to the Finals, the Avalanche have been a team that can win an 8-6 game as comfortably as a 4-0 shutout. In fact, they did both in the same series against the Edmonton Oilers. As Colorado standout Nathan MacKinnon said, the Avalanche can play with offensive momentum at home and then play “boring, rough” hockey on the road to slow teams down.
The Avalanche cook with a recipe the Lightning created over their last two league seasons. Tampa Bay has the offensive players to go goal for goal with the Avalanche, who lead the playoffs with 4.64 goals per game. But the Lightning also have the ability to win 1-0, with veteran players embodying the patient poise needed to do so.
“I think it’s just believing in us and believing in the job you’re doing. But trust is the word. We trust every guy that goes over those backboards to do their job. Whether you score a goal It’s the little things that matter. It’s the defense. It’s the blocked shots. It’s the sacrifice. It’s not about complaining about your role. It’s going out and playing as hard as you can. possible for the guy sitting next to you in that locker room,” Stamkos said.
“That’s why this group is so special. We don’t know what’s going to happen here in the next 10-14 days. But we know we’re going to give it our all.”
It’s unclear how a series will play out until it’s played, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Stanley Cup Final become a battle between Colorado’s offense and the variety of ways the Lightning will try to defend her. They have Vasilevskiy as their backbone. They have Hedman and McDonagh playing almost 47 minutes per game between them. They have a newly formed line of control with Hagel, Cirelli and Killorn who outscored Rangers 5-5, and a collection of forwards who pride themselves on defending by any means necessary.
“Does it get contagious? It’s true. God forbid you look at a guy [block a shot] and then you have a chance to do it. You come to the bench and it’s not a fun place if you’re not willing to. So guys are getting in line in that regard,” Cooper said. “That’s been the story with us for a number of years. It’s kind of built into our culture.”
A championship culture, and that should make for an exceptional Stanley Cup final against the Avalanche.
Stamkos said the Avalanche were a team the Lightning expected to have played for the Stanley Cup before. Colorado has failed to advance past the second round in three consecutive seasons.
“Now they’ve broken through. They just have an incredible mix of veteran players, stars, crushers, goalkeepers. A huge challenge for us,” Stamkos said. “We know how we have to play. It’s no secret that they have electric players.”
Just like Lightning. They can run and shoot. But most likely, it will be their defense that could be the difference between becoming the sixth team since 1983 to miss a hat-trick or the first official dynasty of the cap era.
“We don’t care how it gets done. It just has to get done,” Stamkos said. “We are going to the final again. We have a chance to do something really special.”