7:00 AM ET
ESPN NHL reporter
Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.Greg Wyshynski
Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs are down to the final two teams. The Western Conference champion Colorado Avalanche will host the Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay Lightning for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN+).
Tampa Bay can become the first three-peat Cup champion since the New York Islanders won their third of four straight in 1982. Colorado is hoping to earn its third Cup in franchise history, and its first since 2001.
Whether you’ve been following these teams your whole life or are just tuning in for the Final, we’ve got you covered with key players, goalie confidence ratings, X factors and more for both the Avs and the Lightning — plus our picks on who will win hockey’s ultimate prize.
Note: Kristen Shilton previewed the Avalanche, while Greg Wyshynski provided insights on the Lightning.
Colorado AvalancheHow they got here: Defeated Nashville Predators 4-0, defeated St. Louis Blues 4-2, defeated Edmonton Oilers 4-0.
Goalie confidence rating: 8
Colorado either has the best — or worst — goalie conundrum for this time of year. Instead of just one capable starter, the Avalanche have two: Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz. There’s an argument to be made for each of them starting in Game 1 of the Cup finals. The question is, whom will coach Jared Bednar select?
Francouz has had the hot hand of late, and probably the inside track on that all-important, confidence-boosting, you’re-the-guy vote from Bednar. Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Edmonton, and Francouz took over to backstop Colorado in its sweep. Kuemper returned to back up in Game 4 of that series and confirmed last week he is “100 percent healthy.” Earlier this postseason, Kuemper left the series against Nashville because of an accidental stick to his eye from Matt Duchene, and Francouz subsequently closed out the Preds. Bednar, of course, isn’t tipping his hand on whether Francouz will retain the starter’s crease.
There isn’t much separating Kuemper and Francouz in the playoffs. Kuemper has a 6-2-0 record with an .897 save percentage and a 2.65 goals-against average. Francouz is 6-0-0 with a .906 SV% and 2.86 GAA.
The bottom line is that Francouz hasn’t recorded a postseason loss, and he has more recent playing experience given Kuemper’s injury. Colorado may not have played a game since June 6, but Kuemper hasn’t appeared in one since May 31. That’s a long stretch of downtime for any goalie.
How much is Kuemper owed for a great regular season? It can’t be more than what Francouz is due for a strong playoffs. And that’s why Colorado is in good shape here. There’s no wrong decision to make; its goaltending should be an asset no matter what.
What we’ve learned about this team so far in the postseason
We knew Colorado was good. What we’ve learned is just how good.
The Avalanche aren’t just a fast, talented, deep team. They’re opportunistic, critically resilient and seemingly unaware of any limitations on their ability. Even on nights when the ending seems written — like when they were down two goals in the third period vs. Edmonton in Game 4 — they just continue to execute. There is no quit — to borrow the Rangers’ playoff slogan — in the Avalanche. Until the final buzzer sounds, they’ll give it all they’ve got.
We’ve also seen how Colorado is more than the sum of its stars. Of course Cale Makar (22 points in 14 games), Nathan MacKinnon (18 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (17 points) have been key factors in the Avalanche’s success. But it’s Artturi Lehkonen who leads the team in game-winning goals. It’s J.T. Compher scoring when Colorado needs a boost. The veteran Erik Johnson is shepherding young Bowen Byram through what has developed into an excellent postseason for both. Colorado has also lost an important player in Nazem Kadri and failed to miss a beat (at least so far). The next-man-up mentality is baked into the Avs’ philosophy.
And calling Colorado “deep” almost doesn’t do the team justice. Throughout the playoffs, the Avalanche have appeared to become stronger, to trust themselves more and to embrace whatever comes their way. Colorado has performed as seamlessly in one-goal outings as it has in 8-6 barn burners. That’s a testament to Bednar’s coaching, and the Avalanche’s leadership group.
Seeing all those elements on display in the playoffs is what has defined a great run so far for Colorado.
Player that will be key to the series
All eyes will be on Makar. After all, the defenseman can hardly be ignored.
He is Colorado’s most effective all-around player. He plays over 27 minutes per game, from 5-on-5 to the power play to the penalty kill. Keeping him on the ice as much as possible is how Colorado will best keep the puck away from Tampa Bay.
It’s not just about the offensive players Tampa Bay wields. It’s also that the Lightning boast one of the NHL’s best — and craftiest — veteran defensemen in Victor Hedman. Not since Ray Bourque and Scott Stevens went head-to-head in the 2001 Cup finals have two Norris Trophy finalists faced each other at this pinnacle. So for all the previous talk in Colorado’s last series about a MacKinnon-Connor McDavid matchup, the key to this Final could be how Makar keeps pace with what Hedman is bringing the other way.
Player who needs to step up
Let’s talk about Valeri Nichushkin.
He has been a solid defensive forward for Colorado in the postseason, also tallying five goals and nine points in 14 games. And that’s after he scored 52 points in 62 regular-season games. Those numbers didn’t garner much acclaim for Nichushkin then. What’s coming up next could.
Once Kadri broke his thumb and was unavailable for Game 4 against Edmonton, Bednar juggled his top six forwards and slotted Nichushkin next to MacKinnon and Landeskog on the Avalanche’s top line. That’s a major assignment for any player, but the combination worked well. What it says about Nichushkin reflects on everything he has brought to the table — and how much more he could offer.
We’ve gone over how impressive Colorado’s depth is. It’s time for Nichushkin to start making more noise within it. That’s not to say he should get away from the defensive habits that make him so successful, but in this series, where goals could be at more of a premium, Nichushkin should lean into his offensive skill set too. Riding shotgun with talents like MacKinnon and Landeskog should help. Whether he attempts to contribute as a playmaker or by lighting the lamp himself, this is a moment for Nichushkin (who also happens to be a pending free agent) to embrace.
How do they solve Andrei Vasilevskiy?
This is the series-defining question. How do you beat the best goalie in the world? And do it four times?
It starts with making Vasilevskiy uncomfortable. He’s going to stop any pucks he can see; Colorado needs to make sure he doesn’t see all of them. That requires creating traffic in front of the net, cycling the puck and wearing down Tampa Bay’s defense, carving out some shooting lanes in dangerous areas and firing early and often to set a tone for the attack.
Easy, right? Well, no.
The Lightning are a great defensive team, too. They do a good job boxing out in front of Vasilevskiy and preventing those high-danger chances Colorado has so often generated against other teams. To combat that, Colorado has to capitalize on what openings it does find.
The Avalanche are guilty at times of too many touches, too much waiting around for the perfect shot. That won’t fly against Vasilevskiy (or Tampa Bay’s back end). Colorado has to make fast decisions, enter the zone with speed and not allow Vasilevskiy time to get settled.
Colorado has enough tools to disrupt even the most elite goaltender’s flow. All it has to do now is prove it — over and over again.
Barry Melrose praises this Lightning team and puts the pressure on the Avalanche to take home the Stanley Cup.
Tampa Bay LightningHow they got here: Defeated Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3, defeated Florida Panthers 4-0, defeated New York Rangers 4-2.
Goalie confidence rating: 10
No matter what happens in the Stanley Cup Final, Andrei Vasilevskiy has cemented his status as one of the greatest postseason goalies in NHL history.
After an uncharacteristically rough first round against the Maple Leafs, Vasilevskiy has a .939 save percentage and a 1.81 goals-against average at 5-on-5 in the 10 games since. He had a .955 save percentage over the last four games of his series against the Rangers.
His clutch play is now legendary. Vasilevskiy has 13 career series-clinching wins and has stopped 219 of 221 shots in his past eight series-clinching wins. He’s the reason the Lightning have a chance at a Stanley Cup three-peat against the best offensive team in the playoffs.
What we’ve learned about this team so far in the postseason
The Lightning are still the Lightning:
They are still the team with stars like Steven Stamkos (15 points), Nikita Kucherov (23 points) and Victor Hedman (14 points), who have made their mark on this playoff run.
They still have heroic role players like Ondrej Palat, whose two winning goals against the Rangers tipped the series.
They still have Vasilevskiy.
They are still the team that can beat you 5-4 or 1-0, and look just as comfortable doing either under the guidance of coach Jon Cooper.
But what we also learned about the Lightning is that they know how to find reinforcements. Tampa Bay lost its entire checking line after last season. It created a new one with holdovers Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn and trade deadline pickup Brandon Hagel.
Forward Nick Paul, another deadline pickup, has been a solid scorer and dynamic penalty killer. Veterans Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, who signed contracts last summer, create some chaos too.
Since 1983, no team that won back-to-back Stanley Cups advanced past the second round in its three-peat attempt. There’s a reason this one has.
Players who will be key to the series
How the Lightning handle Nathan MacKinnon’s line will be a key to the series. The key to that could be that checking line with Hagel, Cirelli and Killorn.
When those three were deployed against the Rangers’ top line centered by Mika Zibanejad, New York’s even-strength goals dried up. They’ve seen Auston Matthews, and they’ve seen Aleksander Barkov. No doubt they’ll see MacKinnon’s group.
“With the coach having a lot of confidence in us in putting us against these lines, it’s been great. We know we have a huge job next, probably the biggest job we’ve had in the playoffs,” Killorn said.
Player who needs to step up
Brayden Point had four points in seven games before suffering a lower-body injury in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs. He has been slowly working his way back from that injury and is “extremely probable” to play in the Stanley Cup Final, according to Cooper.
He’s one of the best two-way centers in the NHL, having scored more goals (30) in the postseason over the past three years than any other player. He’s the X factor of X factors in this series.
How will they go about slowing down Cale Makar?
First off, let’s all agree that it’s about “slowing down” and not “stopping” Makar, because with 22 points in 14 games this postseason, the most brilliant offensive defenseman of our time will not be entirely shut down.
However, the Lightning faced a pretty great one in the past round in Rangers star Adam Fox. Their best defense was a good offense: Getting pucks behind the New York defenders and forcing Fox to defend rather than lead the offensive attack. That’s one way to try to slow Makar, but again, there’s no stopping him.
Cup champion predictionsKristen Shilton: Avalanche in seven. This is by far the toughest series to predict to date, for the record. It’s hard to bet against the champs. But somehow, it also feels like this is Colorado’s year.
Greg Wyshynski: Avalanche in six. As much as I want to see a three-peat, I’ll take the Avs’ depth, speed and rest against the Lightning. But it’s going to be one of the most competitive Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory.
Source : ESPN