Avalanche have Home-Ice Edge
Championship matchups don’t get much better than this with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning facing off against a Colorado Avalanche team that was considered to be the title favorite for much of the season.
The festivities get underway on Wednesday in Denver since the Avalanche finished with nine more points than the Lightning during the regular season. Game 2 is Saturday also in Denver before the series shifts to Tampa for Games 3 and 4.
According to the NHL playoff odds, Colorado (-175) is favored in the Stanley Cup Final series price.
Scouting the Lightning
A quick look at the mainstays during the Lightning’s run to the franchise’s third straight Stanley Cup Final shows the good fortune and good scouting of the Tampa Bay staff. Captain Steven Stamkos was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. He has lived up to the hype with 312 more points during the regular season than any other player selected in 2008.
The next year, defenseman Victor Hedman was taken with the second pick. Once again, Tampa Bay made the obvious choice. Hedman has won both the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman in the NHL and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Other players to win both of those awards read like a Who’s Who of NHL defensemen — Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Al MacInnis, Brian Leetch, Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom, Scott Niedermayer and Duncan Keith.
Nikita Kucherov, who leads the Lightning with 23 points in 17 playoff games this season, was a late second-round pick. Ondrej Palat, the franchise record-holder with 11 game-winning goals in the playoffs, was selected in the seventh round.
Brayden Point, Ross Colton and Anthony Cirelli are other players taken outside of the first round to contribute to the Lightning’s incredible run. Picking goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy 19th overall in 2012 was another brilliant move.
The Lightning lost some depth up front due to the expansion draft and salary-cap issues. That led some who bet online to question whether Tampa Bay would get this far. Corey Perry is among the veterans Tampa Bay brought in to address that concern.
Scouting the Avalanche
Much like the Lightning, the top four playoff scorers were all taken by the Colorado Avalanche, with defenseman Cale Makar as well as forwards Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog all high first-round selections.
Makar already had a prominent profile before the playoffs started. However, he has taken things to a different level. Wayne Gretzky, the all-time leading scorer in NHL history, said that Makar’s impact in both the offensive and defensive zones could be the best he has seen for a defenseman since the legendary Bobby Orr played for the Boston Bruins.
“The closest player we’ve ever seen offensively and defensively that can make an impact on the game that much is Bobby Orr” — Wayne Gretzky on Cale Makar
“Yeah, I think he’s the best in the game right now” — Devon Toews, Makar’s D partner for #Avs
— Mike Chambers (@MikeChambers) June 10, 2022
Makar (+175) currently has the best odds to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog don’t play together as often as in previous seasons but all three have the ability to take over a game. Artturri Lehkonen, Valeri Nichushkin and J.T. Compher have combined for 16 goals in the postseason to give Colorado the scoring depth a team needs to win it all.
Devon Toews is the perfect defensive partner for Makar. Colorado’s ability to acquire Toews from a New York Islanders team dealing with salary-cap issues continues to be one of the top moves made by the team’s front office. Former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson and Josh Manson have played key roles on defense.
Neither Darcy Kuemper nor Pavel Francouz has been as impressive as Tampa Bay’s Vasilevskiy, but they’ve gotten the Avalanche this far.
Both teams are waiting and hoping to get back key forwards. Tampa Bay’s Brayden Point hasn’t played since Game 7 of the first-round series against Toronto. There were some rumblings that he might be able to return late in the series with the New York Rangers. That didn’t happen, but perhaps he will come back for this series. All Point did is lead Tampa Bay with 14 playoff goals in both 2020 and 2021.
It could be a long wait for Colorado’s second-line center Nazem Kadri, who underwent thumb surgery after being run into the boards by Edmonton winger Evander Kane.
Andre Burakovsky is probable for Colorado while fellow forwards Kadri and Andrew Cogliano are both questionable.
Head to head
Colorado swept the season series, winning 4-3 in a shootout on the road on Oct. 23. MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen scored in regulation for the Avalanche before Makar won it in round 6 of the shootout. Stamkos, Point, and Mathieu Joseph (now a member of the Ottawa Senators) scored for Tampa Bay.
Landeskog, Toews and Nichushkin scored in the rematch won by Colorado 3-2 at home on Feb. 10. Kucherov and Point had the goals for the Lightning.
Five of the last seven games between the teams have been decided by one goal. Four of the last five games featured at least seven goals scored.
Tampa Bay has won four of its last five games played in Colorado. The visiting team has won five of the last seven matchups between the teams.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers discovered that it can be dangerous to count out the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now comes the biggest test yet as Tampa Bay attempts to become the first team to win three straight NHL titles since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-84.
Don’t expect this to be as wide open as Colorado’s last series with Edmonton. Tampa Bay would rather have games similar to the two regular-season showdowns. Case in point: Colorado is averaging 4.6 goals per game in the playoffs compared to 3.1 for the Lightning. Colorado is also much more effective on the power play as it is converted 31 percent of the time while Tampa Bay is at 22.6 percent.
The current Las Vegas odds favor Colorado winning in six games, as that comes in at +350, followed by the Avalanche winning in seven (+375). The top odds for Tampa Bay have the Lightning winning in six games with odds of +550.
Buckle up because this could be fun.