Buffalo News sports reporters Mike Harrington and Lance Lysowski break down the Stanley Cup Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche, and include their pick to win the Stanley Cup:
A quest for history or a coronation of the NHL's newest juggernaut.
That's what the most intriguing Stanley Cup Final in many years gives us as overriding storylines when the puck drops for Game 1 here Wednesday night between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche.
The Lightning are going for the NHL's first three-peat since the New York Islanders won four in a row in the 1980s. And it's noteworthy they're even in this series when you consider that multiple Cup winners of recent years since as Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit never got to the final three straight years.
The Avalanche have been virtually unstoppable in the playoffs, going 12-2 while making quick work of Nashville and Edmonton in impressive sweeps. Just five years after a 48-point season that featured 60 losses, they have overcome three straight second-round losses to finally claim best in the West status.
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So what happens now? The Lightning have battled hard to get past Toronto and the New York Rangers, when their reign looked on its last legs in both rounds. Winning 11 straight series is a mind-boggling accomplishment. The Avalanche have been idle for more than a week after sweeping the Oilers and might show rust when the series starts.
There are superstars on both sides of the ice up front and on defense but the big difference is in goal. Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy held the New York Rangers to three goals over the final three games of the East final and was dominant in the sweep of Florida. He gives the Lightning a big edge over the Colorado tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz.
The way Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are playing, Tampa Bay can match Colorado's scoring and the Avs have yet to see the kind of lockdown defense or goaltending they'll deal with from the Lightning. And the experience of playing on the game's biggest stage and having Jon Cooper behind the bench are huge benefits as well.
Prediction: Look for the Lightning to get another Cup celebration at home. Tampa Bay in 6.
This is the Stanley Cup final matchup many expected when the season began eight months ago. No one could have predicted how we got here, though.
The Avalanche overcame an injury to goalie Darcy Kuemper and swept Edmonton in the Western Conference finals. Twice in these playoffs, Tampa Bay seemed to be out of gas, most recently when falling behind 2-0 to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals. But the Lightning are a playoff-hardened, resilient bunch and overwhelmed the Rangers to win in six games despite not having injured center Brayden Point.
Tampa Bay will have the edge in goal in the Stanley Cup final. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best in the world. Kuemper is expected to be ready to play, but he hasn’t appeared in a game since Game 1 of the conference finals on May 31. His backup, Pavel Francouz, is capable, but he wouldn’t be able to outduel Vasilevskiy.
However, this series will be decided by the Lightning’s ability or inability to defend the Avalanche’s speed. Tampa Bay used a shutdown defensive game to rally for the series win over New York after appearing too slow early on and will need a similar effort to have a chance here.
Good luck limiting Colorado, though. Even if Nazem Kadri remains out with an injury, the Avalanche have Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Cale Maker and Devon Toews in a lineup that’s deep and fast enough to embarrass teams. Their depth forwards are better than those on the Lightning.
Prediction: Avalanche in 7. This will be a knock-down-drag-out series. Ending Tampa Bay’s quest for a three-peat will require more than an early lead, but Colorado has the offensive firepower and defensive structure to help whoever is in goal.