After six weeks of postseason play, the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals are officially set. The Tampa Bay Lightning is looking to make history. Back for the third straight season, they knocked off the New York Rangers with four consecutive victories after falling behind 2-0 in the series. The organization aims to become the first franchise since the New York Islanders to win the Stanley Cup three seasons in a row. Matching up with them will be the Colorado Avalanche. Crowned the Western Conference champions for the first time since 2002, they swept the Edmonton Oilers. Set to be a stellar finale with no shortage of star power present on the ice, here is how these two teams break down.
Make sure to check out all of our other Playoff Previews.
Leading the way for the Lightning in goal once again, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been excellent for the group. He helped them knock off the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, and Rangers in the ultra-competitive Eastern Conference. The 27-year-old owns a .916 save percentage and a 2.49 goals-against average while posting two shutouts across 18 starts. On the flip side, the Avalanche have split time in the crease. They began the playoffs with Darcy Kuemper in between the pipes. Unfortunately, the former sixth-round pick took a stick to the face during game 3 of the team’s first-round series against the Nashville Predators, which ultimately held him out for the duration of it.
Returning during their matchup against the St Louis Blues, the Saskatoon Skaskatchen native recorded just a .900 save percentage while reportedly saying he was struggling with his vision. Forced to turn things over to Pavel Francouz, the three-year veteran helped right the ship in the absence of Kuemper while making big-time saves against the Oilers. However, after letting in five goals in their Game 4 overtime victory, head coach Jared Bednar has yet to commit to a starter for the finals, leaving a massive advantage for the two-time defending champions.
Home to two of the best defensive cores, Tampa Bay is led on the back end by their one-time Norris Trophy champion, Victor Hedman. The 31-year-old trails only Adam Fox and Cale Makar with 14 points in 31 games while playing over 24 minutes per night. Leaning on their second pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak to also play shutdown minutes, they have six guys who are all big and physical on the blue line.
Makar has been one of the stories of the postseason so far. The former fourth overall pick leads the Avalanche in assists (17) and points (22). Making history in their win over Edmonton, the 23-year-old became just the ninth defenseman of all time to record nine points in a four-game span in the playoffs. Joining him on the first pairing, Devon Toews has continued to be rock solid for Colorado. The longtime New York Islander has amassed five goals in 14 games while racking up 21 blocks and hits.
The Lightning’s power play ranked eighth during the regular season. They hit on 23.9 percent of their opportunities. Seeing a slight decline during the playoffs, the team has scored on 14 of their 62 chances. Quarterbacked up top by Hedman, he is joined on the point by captain Steven Stamkos. Corey Perry and Nikita Kucherov join him on the left and the right, while Alex Killorn has handled the net-front duties in the absence of Brayden Point.
Red hot with the extra man during the postseason, the Avalanche trail only the Rangers in power play percentage by scoring on 31.1 percent of their opportunities. Running everything through Makar, the Calgary, Alberta native has scored once on the man advantage while also dishing out seven helpers.
Tampa Bay has seen its offensive production dip slightly from past years. Struggling to score goals at times, the team has been without Point since game 7 of their opening-round series against the Maple Leafs. Nonetheless, the group is still loaded up front with superstars and depth. Choosing to play all four lines under head coach Jon Cooper, the Lightning is guided by their top unit in Stamkos, Kuckerov, and Andrei Palat.
With one of the best second lines in the game in Brandon Hagel, Anthony Cirelli, and Killorn, look for them to log minutes against Nathan Mackinnon and company to free up their superstars. Closing out their bottom-six, both Nick Paul and Perry have had a strong playoff. Paul has three goals, two of which came in game seven against Toronto, while Perry is tied for fifth on the team with eight points.
The most dynamic team on the offensive end in the postseason, Colorado, leads all teams with 4.64 goals averaged per game. As a result, Mackinnon is firmly in the conversation for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs. Dazzling night in and night out, the former number one overall pick is second in the NHL in goals (11) and seventh in points (18). Joined on his line by captain Gabriel Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin, the Avalanche boasts significant depth lower down in their lineup. Nine players have scored five or more goals in the playoffs, while seven have racked up double digits in points.
Establishing himself as one of the best big game goaltenders in recent memory, the x-factor for Tampa Bay is Vasilevskiy. He is capable of stealing a series all by himself. Since the start of the playoffs in 2020, the four-time all-star owns a .951 save percentage when his team has had the chance to eliminate someone while posting a remarkable six shutouts.
The current betting favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy, Makar, is putting together a historic run. The smooth-skating defenseman has recorded nine points in his last five games, averaging 1.57 each night. This is the highest mark at the position in the playoffs in over 30 years.
The longest-tenured head coach in the game, Jon Cooper, is making his eighth appearance in the playoffs. The 54-year-old is set to coach in his third straight Stanley Cup Final. Long preaching culture over strategy, he has had to make multiple lineup adjustments throughout the postseason in the absence of one of his superstars in Point.
Quickly evolving into one of the brightest minds in the NHL, Jared Bednar is looking to help bring the Stanley Cup back to Colorado for the first time in over two decades. He is a detail-oriented leader behind the bench. In addition, the Yorkton, Saskatchewan native has been lauded for his ability to treat every player up and down the lineup equally.
Colorado has steamrolled its way through the 2022 NHL Playoffs. They have lost just twice in 14 games. Home to elite talent both upfront and on the back end, the Avalanche will have their work cut out for them against a veteran group. Tampa Bay is looking to make history by becoming just the fourth franchise ever to win three Stanley Cups in a row. The team has the ability to beat you in multiple ways.
They have the superstars up front to match their opponent while also possessing the defensive mentality to protect a lead when needed. In a series that many expect to go the distance, expect Bednar’s group to give the Lightning all they can handle. However, backed behind the best goaltender in the league in Vasilevskiy, the remarkable run of the reigning champions continues.
Series Prediction: Tampa Bay 4-3
Check us out on our socials:
Twitter: @PTSTNews and @TalkPrimeTime
Facebook Page: Prime Time Sports Talk
Join our Facebook Group: Prime Time Sports Talk
Follow Chris Gallagher on Twitter @ChrisGally06
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images