TAMPA BAY — The Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated the New York Rangers and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals for the third straight season while the Colorado Avalanche rested and ready for Game 1 (Wednesday, 8 ET, ESPN).
Here are five things we’ve learned about the Lightning so far in their post-2022 season journey and what they mean for the final showdown.
The three-peat is within reach
The NHL has not had a team as a Stanley Cup champion 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 didn’t make it past the second round until the Lightning won the East that season.
“You don’t get these chances often. They don’t come by. It’s like we’ve seen the top of the mountain. Let’s keep going,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
It’s a classic Stanley Cup matchup: the Colorado Avalanche, who, after several years as top contenders, are trying to finally win their first trophy since 2001; and the Lightning, who is now just four wins away from unprecedented success in the NHL’s salary cap era that began in 2005.
(Mostly) old faces, same success
The Avalanche face a Lightning team whose core is essentially the same as the teams that have won back-to-back Cups.
Tampa Bay is powered by stars:
Center Steven Stamkos, the team captain with 481 career goals
Winger Nikita Kucherov, former league MVP and playoff top scorer
Center Brayden Point, who missed almost two rounds through injury but has scored more playoff goals than any other player in the last three postseasons
Defenseman Victor Hedman, nominated for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman and playoff MVP for six straight seasons in 2020
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a perennial veteran
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 2021 playoff MVP
They are supported by a recurring cast of characters, including winger Ondrej Palat, who scored two goals against Rangers to prevent overtime; resilient strikers Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon, who is attempting to play for his fourth consecutive Cup winners; ace defenseman Anthony Cirelli, who shut down Rangers’ top line; and Mikhail Sergachev’s smooth skating defense.
One of the most impressive things about this run? That the Lightning lost their entire checking line and a few key role players from their last two cup wins; replaced them with veteran offseason pickups (Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) and trade-deadline acquisitions (Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul); and didn’t miss a beat.
“We were looking for a suitable player,” said GM Julien BriseBois. “We are looking for people who are proud and ambitious. Pride will make you keep pushing yourself when things aren’t going well for you. Ambition will drive your continued success. They’re still hungry for more.”
Kucherov is elite
The Avalanche and Lightning both have elite skaters who can take over games. Kucherov is the most important among them. Kucherov has 23 points in 17 games, spread fairly evenly on 5-on-5 and power play. No NHL player has scored more points in the past three postseasons than Kucherov. While his goalscoring abilities are elite, it’s his playmaking skills and puck distribution that allow him to pick up the points.
He is a pacemaker for the Lightning. If he’s confident and rolls offensively, they’ll notice. “You can hear the chatter on the bench when he comes down [the ice]. The boys know their best player is ‘on’ in a big game,” Stamkos said.
If the Lightning win their third straight Stanley Cup, it could be Kucherov’s turn to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Can the Avs beat Vasilevskiy?
Colorado has had a few goalie breaks this postseason. The Nashville Predators had no injured starter Juuse Saros. The St. Louis Blues lost a recovered Jordan Binnington to injury in Game 3. And Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith was… well, Mike Smith.
Opposing goalies have a combined save percentage of .886 against the Avalanche this postseason. But barring something unforeseen, the Stanley Cup Finals will see the Avalanche face their toughest competition – and the player many consider the best goalie in the world.
The postseason didn’t start well for Vasilevskiy as he lost 22 goals in seven games to the top-flight Toronto Maple Leafs. But he was great when it mattered, stopping 30 of 31 shots in Game 7. Aside from a hiccup in Game 1 against Rangers, Vasilevskiy was absolutely dominant after a nine-day break. As coach Jon Cooper said, he “got his mojo back” as the playoffs progressed.
In Vasilevskiy, the Avalanche will face one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history. It’s not just about how good he is, but also when he’s at his best: in 23 previous straight winning games, Vasilevskiy had 1.65 goals against average and six shutouts. A third straight Stanley Cup could cement his legacy as one of the greatest of all time.
“If we look back when we’re older, that’s going to be something that will stay there for a long time. It’s pretty cool to play with a player who will go down as one of the best to have played the game,” Killorn said. “This is how you judge players: How they play in big games. He was nothing but great in those games.”
That mastery adaptability
On their way to the Finals, the Avalanche were a team that could win an 8-6 game as easily as a 4-0 shutout. In fact, they both played against the Edmonton Oilers in the same series. As Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon has said, the Avalanche can play with offensive momentum at home and then play “boring and gross” hockey on the streets to slow teams down.
The Avalanche cook using a recipe Lightning created in their last two Championship seasons. Tampa Bay has the offensive players in the Avalanche, who lead the playoffs with 4.64 goals per game. But the Lightning also have the ability to win 1-0, with experienced players embodying the patient attitude necessary to do so.
There’s no telling how a series will play out before it’s played, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the Stanley Cup Finals turned into a battle between Colorado’s offense and the various ways Lightning will attempt to close it defend. They have Vasilevskiy as their backbone. You have Hedman and McDonagh playing almost 47 minutes a game combined. They have a newly formed line of control with Hagel, Cirelli and Killorn dominating the Rangers 5v5 and a collection of forwards who pride themselves on defending by any means necessary.
“Will it be contagious? It does. God forbid you’re watching a guy [block a shot] and then you have the opportunity to do it. You come onto the bench and it’s not a comfortable place if you’re not ready for it. So in that regard, people have to queue up,” Cooper said. “It has been history for us for a few years. It’s kind of built into our culture.”
A championship culture that should make for an outstanding Stanley Cup final against the Avalanche.