The Stanley Cup Final is finally here, and the matchup is as good as it gets.
It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, in search of a third consecutive title, against the Colorado Avalanche, who have been considered a title contender for several seasons. It’s Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov hunting another ring against Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Gabriel Landeskog going for their first.
Colorado is 12-2 in the postseason, with sweeps in the first and third rounds and a 7-0 record on the road. Tampa Bay, after winning a Game 7 in Toronto in the first round and sweeping the Florida Panthers (winners of the President’s Trophy), overcame a 2-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference finals against the New York Rangers to win in six.
In a roundtable discussion led by Los Angeles Times hockey editor Hans Tesselaar, Times columnist Helene Elliott (a Hockey Hall of Fame honoree) and Times staffers Curtis Zupke, Jim Barrero and Nick Leyva give their thoughts on the best-of-seven series that begins Wednesday in Denver.
What are the biggest keys to this series?
Barrero: Hunger versus experience. Can the hunger of winning a first Cup for this group of Colorado Avalanche players outweigh the playoff experience that surely will be a factor for the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning? It will be interesting to see as this is one of the most compelling Final matchups in quite some time. MacKinnon, having conquered Connor McDavid and the Oilers in a sweep, seems to be on a mission. How do you slow him down? A player like Anthony Cirelli for the Lightning probably will try. Can he play a role similar to that of Phillip Danault for Montreal in last season’s playoffs? How much will the loss of Nazem Kadri to injury and Colorado’s goaltender situation have an effect?
Leyva: The biggest might be the offensive depth the Avalanche have shown all season. The question is can Tampa Bay contain Colorado’s attack because it certainly is not going to stop it. The Avalanche’s overall team speed is going to be a huge factor. From the first line to the fourth line, Colorado matches up well with anything the Lightning can roll out, especially if Brayden Point is not his usual self. Plus, Colorado, with Makar, has the advantage on the blue line; only Victor Hedman has anything close to Makar-type talent from the point.
Zupke: What’s the hockey cliché, your best players have to be your best players? It’s going to be which stars take over the games: Vasilevskiy, Kucherov and playoff hero Point for Tampa Bay (as of this writing Point was expected to be available at least by Game 2). For Colorado, of course it’s McKinnon, Landeskog and Makar — my goodness, how good is Makar?
Elliott: One key will be whether Colorado is rusty after such a long layoff. Practice never has the same intensity as a real game.
Colorado had seven days off after sweeping Nashville in the first round. They haven’t played since June 6. How much of a factor will that be?
Zupke: Hockey players are the most extreme creatures of habit in sports. They like playing every other day, usually with a morning skate and the same time for puck drop, so I do think there is something to sitting around for too long. Having said that, I think whatever rust there is will dissipate within the first few shifts of Game 1.
Barrero: I don’t think it will be a factor at all. The Avalanche have streamrollered through the playoffs and already dealt with a long layoff after sweeping Nashville and then coming out and beating St. Louis in overtime in Game 1 of the next series. I have no doubt that Colorado finally making it to the Cup Final with this group will be incentive enough to not come out flat.
Leyva: I don’t think that will be much of a factor, but if the Lightning want to take advantage of stealing a game at Ball Arena, Game 1 would be the one. Plus, because of COVID-19 issues, this season has been full of long layoffs and compact schedules so this team, more than any other, might be used to sitting on its hands. But you never know, I remember the Ducks had a nearly two-week layoff before the 2003 Cup Final against New Jersey and we all know how that series turned out.
We know Vasilevskiy, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP last season, will be in goal for Tampa Bay. Who will be in the other net? Darcy Kuemper is the Avalanche’s No. 1 goalie, but he missed the last three games of the Western Conference finals against Edmonton with an upper-body injury. Whether Kuemper is ready to play or not, does Colorado stick with Pavel Francouz, who is 6-0 in the playoffs?
Barrero: Kuemper came back to be the backup for Francouz in Game 4 against the Oilers, so I think you stick with what has worked most recently. Let Francouz give you a reason to remove him, and if he does, then you know you have a good option waiting. Colorado should frame this as a good problem to have and not let it be a burden.
Leyva: If reports from the Denver Post are to be believed, Kuemper is ready to go on Wednesday night. But if he can’t go, the Avalanche don’t lose much with Francouz in net. He’s a solid backup and with Colorado’s firepower, you certainly don’t need your goalie to steal a 1-0 game.
Elliott: Having so much time off allowed Kuemper to recover from the upper-body … and that’s a good thing. Coach Jared Bednar (who briefly played for the long-gone Anaheim Bullfrogs of Roller Hockey International, has said he will pick his starter based on their body of work, but it’s likely Kuemper will win that honor.
No team has won the Cup three times in a row since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980 to 1983. If Tampa Bay pulls this off, how impressive of a feat will it be?
Elliott: If Tampa Bay wins the Cup for the third straight season, the word “dynasty” has to be in the conversation. They’ve won under circumstances no other three-time winner has faced, playing through a pandemic and under a salary cap that hasn’t gone up by very much because the pandemic torpedoed the league’s revenues. And they’re far from done, with key players still in their prime and talent still flowing.
Barrero: Extremely impressive. The Lightning have really opened my eyes during this run when it could have been so easy to lose focus and subconsciously be content with back-to-back Cups. Just when you think the tank might be nearing empty, they find a way to raise their game a notch. Credit that to the experience of the last two seasons perhaps, but the mental grind that it requires to continue winning at this level for so long is something to appreciate. This team has won 11 consecutive playoff series. That’s just wild. And we haven’t even mentioned how tough it is in the NHL now to keep a talented team together under salary cap rules.
Zupke: Helene broke this down thoroughly in her Tuesday column. I’ll only add that, having covered the Kings in their “mini-dynasty,” not only do you have to have talent, the physical/mental fortitude to withstand short summers and a creative GM, you have to have a lot of things go right, i.e. staying healthy. (Funny, I remember when the Kings lost Mike Richards during the Chicago series in 2013, a prominent national writer turned to me and said, “They’re cooked without him”). As good as the Kings and Blackhawks were in the early 2010s, neither could win the Cup three times in a row.
Leyva: It would be an amazing feat especially when you consider we’re in the salary-cap era and the Lightning didn’t lose much over the past two years ago. GM Julien BriseBois has done a great job of finding those role players needed for solid roster, but let’s not forget Steve Yzerman’s contributions. I think overcoming the COVID-19 bubble issues was tremendous, and then to have success in non-bubble seasons makes it even more impressive.
With losses in the second round in three consecutive seasons, the Avalanche have been considered underachievers. Is that label now a thing of the past or do they need to win it all?
Elliott: I firmly believe that before a team can win the Cup, it must go through an upset loss or other disappointment in a season. The Islanders lost to Toronto and the New York Rangers in the two seasons before they launched their four-Cup run. The Oilers lost to the Islanders in 1983 before they won four times in five seasons and five in seven seasons. I think Colorado has had those experiences and is ready to win it all, if its goaltending holds up. They’ve drafted well, developed considerable depth, and added a missing element of physicality by acquiring Josh Manson from the Ducks at the trade deadline.
Barrero: I think they need to win it all to truly shed the label. Just getting there won’t be enough with a group this talented. If they don’t do it now, though, I fear it just isn’t meant to be with this team. But, man, what a challenge to have to do against such an accomplished opponent. Still, if they fail, years from now no one will remember who they played, just that they lost. An unfair assessment perhaps, but it’s the reality of how history tends to regard teams like this.
Leyva: I think they need to win it this season to shake that label. The MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen-Landeskog machine is not getting any younger and speedy teams such as Colorado seem to lose a step as every season wears on. This is the Avalanche’s time.
OK, when it’s all said and done, who lifts the Cup?
Barrero: I have to stick with my pick from before the playoffs and that’s the Avalanche. This is finally their year. They do it in six games. MacKinnon wins the Conn Smythe Trophy, taking it over my pre-playoff pick of Makar.
Leyva: Give me Colorado in seven games. I don’t think Tampa Bay can keep up with this team, and it seems to lack the depth that is needed to slow it down. Regardless of what goalie is in net for the Avalanche, I think Vasilevskiy will have his hands full in this one. It would take a superhuman effort by Vasilevskiy to beat Colorado. And if injured Nazem Kadri can be effective at all, Colorado will be that much tougher.
Elliott: With Makar starring, Colorado in six.
Zupke: It seems like it’s Colorado’s time, right? There’s just too much talent over there. They can skate anyone out of the building. But I still think you’re the champion until someone knocks you off, and I like Vasilevskiy, so I’ll go with Tampa Bay in seven. How’s that for hedging my bet?