Knowing ‘toughest round is still ahead of us,’ Colorado Avalanche brace for Tampa Bay Lightning

DENVER — The Colorado Avalanche has long aspired to become the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now the Lightning stands between the Avalanche and their first Stanley Cup win since 2001.

Two-time defending champions Lightning beat the New York Rangers in Game 6 of Saturday’s Eastern Conference Finals to advance to their third straight Cup final, which opens here on Wednesday. Tampa Bay excellence is what these Avalanche have been chasing. And now it’s within reach – if only they can dethrone the NHL’s heavyweights.

“The way I see it you have to expect to be able to beat the best to be the best,” said coach Jared Bednar on Sunday. “They are. They’re the team that everyone is trying to emulate. They’re in the finals for the third year in a row. They’ve just won twice in a row. That’s what every team tries to do, not just come on but stay there and be relevant in all conversations with the best teams in the league each season and continue to prove they are one.

Colorado has already done the preliminary work there. The Avalanche are 12-2 in the Stanley Cup playoffs so far and have survived both their first-round series against Nashville and the Western Conference Finals against Edmonton. Colorado has been idle since securing the Clarence Campbell Bowl on June 6, waiting to see which of Lightning and Rangers would be their final matchup.

It was poetic in a way to see Tampa Bay come through (again). Colorado can go head-to-head with the club that has dominated their sport for the past several years in hopes that they will succeed Tampa Bay in that role.

“They’re a really good team, but we also have confidence,” said Colorado defenseman Bowen Byram. “We have a really good team. Reaching the cup final isn’t easy. We’re looking forward to it. They have a really good team and we have to do our best to beat them. But we’re looking forward to this challenge.”

Bednar admitted that Colorado has yet to face a team like Tampa Bay in the postseason. Excellent goalkeeping by Andrei Vasilevskiy (0.928 SV%, 2.27 GAA in 17 playoff games), the Lightning are aggressive boxing teams at the net. Bednar said his focus on preparing for Tampa Bay began when they took a 3-2 lead against New York, but a key for Colorado is not being intimidated by what lies ahead.

“We have to play with our identity,” he said. “We have certain keys that we’re looking at and things that we’re trying to achieve in the offensive zone. It has to start with our skating. They’re a really deep team, a highly committed team on defense, dangerous on offense. Great goalkeepers. They’re back where they are for a reason, right? It’s very difficult to win against this team. We have to be ready for the challenge.”

A key advantage Tampa Bay has is the playoff experience — and knowing how to win when it counts. Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said that’s “invaluable” for the Lightning this time of year and factors in what makes them such a strong, formidable opponent.

Where Colorado will look to excel, it’s weaponizing its recent recovery. When Tampa had nine days off between the end of its second round against Florida and the puck drop against New York, there was visible rust that contributed to their 2-0 loss in the series. Colorado didn’t have the same problem between their first and second round encounters. Nor do the Avalanche plan to make their current eight-day hiatus an issue.

“We use nothing as an excuse,” said Landeskog. “We will make sure we train hard, rest and are ready to go. That’s just the group we have. We are ready for what we must do. I think rest is a good thing in the long run.”

What matters most to Colorado is the opportunity that is yet to come: to fight for and win the long-awaited trophy.

“It’s exciting to play and know you’re in the last two teams,” said Landeskog. “But the toughest lap is still ahead of us. And that’s an exciting challenge and it’ll be fun to see what we can do as a group. I think we’ve played really solid hockey for the last six weeks and we want to continue that.”

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