Avalanche, Lightning set for anticipated clash

Steven Stamkos has been watching the Colorado Avalanche for the past few years and thought he and the Tampa Bay Lightning would see them in the Stanley Cup Finals before then.

The Lightning are back, looking for the NHL’s first three-pointer in nearly 40 years, and the Nathan MacKinnon-led Colorado core is finally playing for the trophy after a series of crushing disappointments in the playoffs. A potentially epic best-of-seven series between the two-time titleholders and the best hockey players in the west begins with Game 1 Wednesday in Denver.

Stamkos called the Avalanche “probably the best team in the league” and knows the Lightning will have their hands full trying to slow down the offensive juggernaut who is the postseason top scorer.

“It’s no secret that they have some electric players,” Stamkos said Saturday night after Tampa Bay defeated the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games. “Now they’ve made the breakthrough. They just have an incredible mix of veteran presence, star power, grinders and a goalkeeper. A huge challenge for us.”

It’s perhaps the Lightning’s biggest challenge yet since that unprecedented streak of pay-cap era playoff success began two years ago. Tampa Bay is not only the first team to stand for the past three straight years since the cap was introduced in 2005, but also the first in league history since Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers of 1983-1985.

The Lightning aim to be the first to score three goals since the New York Islanders won the trophy four straight years from 1980-83.

“There are still a few games left and we’re not at the end of our target but looking at it this way this group is pretty amazing,” said Stamkos, who scored twice in the 2-1 win over Rangers. “We’re going into the final again and we have the chance to do something very special.”

This is Tampa Bay’s fourth appearance in the Finals since 2015. Stamkos, top defender Victor Hedman, wingers Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and coach Jon Cooper were there from the loss to Chicago Seven years ago to two East Finals, an embarrassing first-round win after the best regular Season in league history and consecutive championships.

MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and the Avalanche have only seen playoff lows up until this point, and have bowed out in first or second rounds for the past four years while the Lightning have been hitting long runs.

“That’s what every team is trying to not just get there, but stay there and be relevant every season,” said Colorado coach Jared Bednar. “They’re all talked about as one of the best teams in the league and then they go out there and prove they are one.”

The Avalanche aren’t there yet, but they’ve come a long way in the more than decade since veteran defenseman Erik Johnson came with just one playoff appearance to start a seven-year run.

“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Johnson said. “We’ve been knocking on the door here for the last few years. Some injuries and things that happened along the way, you never know if that opportunity will come along.”

This opportunity sometimes passes by the best hockey players. San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and many others have only reached the Finals once.

According to six-time champion Mark Messier, teammate trust is the key to victory.

“Trust is everything,” said Messier, now an ESPN analyst. “You have to be able to trust everyone who steps on the ice to make the right decisions and that’s the beauty of playoff hockey because no one can win alone. Everyone needs the person sitting next to you to be the best, and you have to be confident that they put in the work and detail to get the best out of themselves.”

This trust has developed behind the bank for Bednar’s Avalanche over the past six years. It’s well established for the Lightning, to the point that Stamkos brought it up unprompted on Saturday night, sounding just like Messier.

“Trust, that’s the right word,” said the longtime Tampa Bay captain. “We trust that everyone who walks the boards is doing their job. Whether you score or not, it’s the little things you do. It’s the defense, it’s the blocked shots, it’s the victim, it’s not complaining about your role. It just goes out there and plays as hard as it can for the next guy sitting next to you in that locker room.

Only the Avalanche, who are seeking the organization’s first championship since 2001, stand in the way of the Lightning lifting the trophy for the third straight year.

“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,” Stamkos said. “It’s gotten us this far again and it’s just a special group and a pleasure to be a part of.”

AP sports writers Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla. contributed.

Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos holds the Prince of Wales Trophy after defeating the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the NHL Hockey Stanley Cup Playoffs Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. The Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)


Colorado Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog (92) and Erik Johnson (6) stand with the Campbell Conference Bowl while Assistant Commissioner Bill Daley watches after overtime of the NHL Ice Hockey Conference Finals Monday, June 6, 2022 in Edmonton, Alberta . The Avalanche won the game 6-5 to take the series. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press via AP)


Colorado Avalanche’s Gabriel Landeskog (92) is presented the Campbell Conference Bowl by Deputy Commissioner Bill Daley after defeating the Edmonton Oilers Monday, June 6, 2022 during the finals of the NHL Hockey Conference in Edmonton, Alberta . The Avalanche won the game 6-5 to take the series. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press via AP)

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