Answering the biggest questions ahead of the Stanley Cup Final

The 2022 Stanley Cup Final is set to begin Wednesday night in Denver, and it promises to be one of the best matchups in recent memory. The Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to become the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980 to 1983. The high-flying Colorado Avalanche are averaging 4.64 goal per game, and they needed just 14 games to advance to the finals.

Who will get the best of the goalie matchup? How will injuries impact both teams? Who are the players to pay the most attention to? We asked our hockey experts — Emily Kaplan, Kristen Shilton and Greg Wyshynski — those questions and more ahead of the start of the finals.

What are you most excited about in this postseason matchup?

While we don’t typically want to traffic in hyperbole, this matchup between the Lightning and the Avalanche is the greatest of the past two decades in the NHL.

It’s not one in which an upstart team is trying to prevent a prohibitive favorite from winning the championship, as so many Stanley Cup finals tend to trend. No, this is a battle between what clearly have been the two best teams of the postseason. There’s a galaxy of stars, a collection of heroic role players and strong coaching staffs on both teams. The Lightning and Avalanche excel on both ends of the ice, although each is a little better on one end than the other. Colorado’s 4.64 goals per game average is the highest since the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 (minimum 14 games). Tampa Bay leads the playoffs with a 2.41 goal against average in front of the best goalie in the world in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Then there’s the narrative hook. The Lightning are trying to become the first NHL team to three-peat since the Islanders won their fourth straight in 1983. The Lightning are the sixth team to win back-to-back Cups since then and the first of the six to advance past the second round following the second championship. To accomplish this in a salary-cap era is miraculous. The Avalanche, meanwhile, are trying to win their first Cup since 2001. This team of the Nathan MacKinnon era had been a playoff disappointment, failing to advance past the second round in four straight postseasons. Now the Avs have broken through. And they’re trying to emulate the 1984 Oilers, who defeated the Islanders in the Stanley Cup Final: End one dynasty while starting one of their own.

But the most exciting thing? That any prediction is a valid one and any outcome is understandable. The ESPN hockey family predicted a Lightning victory, but with only 14 of 26 pundits backing that pick. The matchup is that close. This is going to be a blast. — Greg Wyshynski

What has been the biggest key to the Lightning having a chance at a three-peat?

Team culture. But that begins with how the team was constructed. The Lightning built their championship team through the draft, and their scouting department is due a ton of credit for finding guys like Ondrej Palat (seventh round), Brayden Point (third round) and Anthony Cirelli (third round). Also credit the team’s development and coaching staffs for setting these guys on the right path. The team is constantly strapped against the cap, forcing likable and talented players out the door. But they repeatedly hit on free agents and midseason pickups, as Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Brandon Hagel and Nicholas Paul have fit seamlessly into the lineup. It feels like character and role are just as important to the Lightning as skill; it’s why they can seemingly overpay for a player like Hagel and feel good about it. He performs in the role he needs to perform in — plain and simple.

Perhaps the most important element is the identity of the Lightning. While we always assume they’re an offensive team, their true talent lies in their defensive structure. Stylistically, players all buy in. And once they clamped down against the Rangers, beginning in the middle of Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, New York didn’t stand a chance. The guys in the Lightning locker room love playing with each other and trust each other to fill their roles; that’s a culture that is built over time and is not easy to replicate. — Emily Kaplan

Who are two players (one on each team) you can’t wait to watch in the finals?

I think Anthony Cirelli has a star turn to come for the Lightning in this series. He is starting to be recognized as one of the best defensive forwards in the game, and his work this postseason has been elite. Cirelli has thrived in assignments that matched him against the opponent’s top-line center. That résumé includes Auston Matthews in Round 1, Aleksander Barkov in the second round and Mika Zibanejad in the conference finals. You can be sure Nathan MacKinnon is the next guy up for Cirelli, but Lightning coach Jon Cooper might have to wait until the games in Tampa to truly match up the lines.

On the Avs, I’ve been blown away by Cale Makar this postseason, and I’m so excited to watch him live. Makar dazzled us so many times during the regular season — and with his amazing skating often made it look effortless — yet he has somehow seemed to up his game during the playoffs. He is going to be the guy in this league for many years, and this Final should be a perfect showcase to a very large audience. — Kaplan

What are your thoughts on the goalie matchup?

This is the Lightning’s most emphatic advantage in the series. After a rough first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Andrei Vasilevskiy has a .939 save percentage and a 1.81 goals against average at 5-on-5 in 10 games. He closed out his much-hyped goalie duel against the Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin with four straight wins and a .955 save percentage in those games. Vasilevskiy’s status as a closer is legendary: He has 13 career series-clinching wins and has stopped 219 of 221 shots in his past eight series-clinching victories.

There’s an inherent confidence in the Lightning thanks to the way Vasilevskiy plays in the postseason. When adversity hits, everyone from the players to coach Jon Cooper will declare that Vasilevskiy is the least of their worries. That confidence is warranted and rewarded.

Saying the Avalanche have won in spite of their goaltending is a bit harsh to Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz. It’s kinder to say that they haven’t been the reason the Avalanche have won three rounds of the playoffs.

But it’s accurate to say that Colorado’s defense has been more effective than its goaltending: The Avalanche have an expected goals rate of 2.13 per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, while their actual goals against per 60 is 2.47. Kuemper has a .897 save percentage for the postseason, including .908 at even strength. Francouz has a .906 postseason save percentage and a respectable .916 at even strength. But metrically, Kuemper has a minus-4.4 goals save above average, which is the worst for any goalie who has played at least 10 games this postseason.

The Avalanche say they have confidence in whoever plays in the Final, noting the work Kuemper did in the regular season and that Francouz has won six straight games in the playoffs, including a 24-save shutout against the Oilers. But it pales in comparison to the confidence the Lightning have in their guy. — Wyshynski

Who are some of the skaters that are key to their team’s success?

Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche: MacKinnon has 18 points in 14 playoff games, including 11 goals, which is the highest total for anyone in the Final. The secret to his success is shot volume: MacKinnon’s 16.7 shots per 60 minutes in all situations is the highest rate in the postseason. His drive to succeed and intensity are legendary among his teammates; he never takes a practice off, let alone a game.

Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche: The captain of the Avalanche has 17 points in 14 games. They’ve had him playing up with MacKinnon recently, although Colorado also has played him on a second line with Nazem Kadri when he is healthy. Landeskog’s physicality is an asset.

Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche: The Finnish winger has 17 points in 14 games, including 12 assists, best among Colorado forwards. He has been on a heater lately, with points in nine of his past 10 games. He could be a game-breaker in this series.

Devon Toews, Avalanche: Emily mentioned Cale Makar, so let’s focus on his defensive partner. As a duo, Toews and Makar were deployed against Connor McDavid in the Edmonton series, and Colorado frequently had the better of play at 5-on-5. While Toews is best known as the “defensive defenseman” in the pairing with Makar, Toews also has 13 points in 14 games. It’s been that kind of run for the Avs.

Steven Stamkos, Lightning: The captain has nine goals and six assists in the playoffs. He was a difference-maker in the Eastern Conference finals with four goals, including Tampa Bay’s only two goals in the Game 6 clincher. Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, who captained Colorado to two Stanley Cup wins as a player, praised Stamkos’ poise and leadership.

Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: With 23 points in 17 games, Tampa Bay’s scoring leader is frequently the pacesetter for how the Lightning play. When he’s on, the bench takes notice. His 1.35 points per game ranks fourth among players with at least 10 postseason games. A brilliant passer who can also score goals with the best of them.

Ondrej Palat, Lightning: There was a moment during the conference finals when someone referred to Palat as a key role player but not a star player. “Who says he’s not a star?” snapped Tampa Bay winger Pat Maroon. “We think he’s a star.” While he’s not a household name, Palat has starred for the Lightning in these playoffs with 16 points in 17 games. That includes game-winning goals in two of the victories over the Rangers, both scored with less than two minutes left in regulation.

Victor Hedman, Lightning: This was the sixth straight season that Hedman was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, which is awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman. He has won the award only once, which is a little baffling given his dominance at both ends of the ice. But he does have another important piece of hardware: the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He’ll need to be at his best to help fuel the Lightning offense — he has 14 points in 17 games — and help shut down the MacKinnon line. — Wyshynski

How big of an impact will home ice play in this series?

I’m generally a proponent of chaos theory in the Stanley Cup Final. What has happened before never plays as big a role as you think it will. The level of desperation often trumps any trends we’ve seen in prior series.

However, it’s worth noting that both teams have been exceptionally good at home. Tampa Bay is 7-1 in its building and hasn’t lost there since Game 3 of the first round against Toronto. Colorado is 5-2 at home, putting the Avalanche’s only two losses of the entire postseason on home ice. At first glance, that would give the Lightning an advantage; Amalie Arena patrons were treated to a Final last season, and they will undoubtedly bring even more energy this time around.

But the Avalanche faithful have been waiting for this moment since 2001. There are seats in Ball Arena going for $10,000 on the open market. If a crowd that passionate and hungry for a long-awaited Cup win can’t provide an extra boost, something is wrong.

Colorado earned home-ice advantage, and I think it will play a factor. Whether that’s at the start of the series or at the end, we’ll find out. But just imagine what a Game 7 in Denver might look and feel like, based on how intense the fans were in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals. That’s where the difference could really be felt. — Kristen Shilton

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Some under-the-radar players you’ll be paying attention to?

J.T. Compher, Avalanche. In the short term, the Avalanche center was tasked with trying to fill the void left by injured center Nazem Kadri. But overall, Compher has been one of their emerging goal-scoring threats over the past few weeks. He scored two goals in Game 6 against the St. Louis Blues; two more in Game 1 against the Oilers; and then the game-winning goal in Game 3 in Edmonton that all but ended the series.

Artturi Lehkonen, Avalanche. The center was one of the smartest trade deadline acquisitions for any team this season, and his impact has been immediate. Lehkonen has six goals and five assists in the playoffs, including the overtime winner in Game 4 to complete the sweep of Edmonton.

Pat Maroon, Lightning. While the Lightning are going for a three-peat, Maroon is his own dynasty. The pugnacious forward is seeking his fourth straight Stanley Cup and 16th straight playoff-round victory between the Blues in 2019 and the past three seasons with the Lightning. Maroon is one of the most physical players on Tampa Bay, with an unmatched ability to talk trash, and he also can score the occasional big goal. Inside the locker room, he is one of the most respected voices on the team. A true character in a league that could use more of them.

Brandon Hagel, Lightning. Hagel has found a home on Tampa Bay’s newly formed checking line with Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Their effective play hasn’t translated into points — Hagel has one goal in his past 11 games — but he had 25 in the regular season. If some of the Lightning’s great defense turns into counterpunch opportunities on offense, Hagel could benefit. — Wyshynski

What can the Avs do if Nazem Kadri doesn’t return?

Colorado’s contingency plan without Kadri (thumb) really comes down to depth. The Avalanche project to have players who can carve out larger roles; it’s just a less-than-ideal time in the season to experiment with such things. But injuries happen; what can you do?

The ability to move Mikko Rantanen to center is a good start. That opens a winger slot for Andre Burakovsky in the top six and allows Valeri Nichushkin to get a look on the top line with Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. Nichushkin has had an underrated postseason to date, producing nine points in 14 games, and he could be a game-changer for Colorado if Kadri can’t come back.

Then there’s Artturi Lehkonen, the hero of Game 4 in Edmonton. He filled in for Kadri on the Avalanche’s power-play unit in that clincher, and the man advantage went 2-for-2. Probably not a coincidence. GM Joe Sakic built Colorado to have a strong foundation, and that’s what should allow them to weather the loss of Kadri throughout the finals, if necessary.

And of course, there’s Cale Makar. He is basically an extra forward as well as an elite defender, and that’s going to mitigate some of the loss felt in Kadri’s absence.

If there’s a bright spot on the Kadri front, though, it’s that he seems to be trending toward a return at some point. Kadri has been in the gym and resumed skating — albeit without a stick — and coach Jared Bednar hasn’t ruled him out for Game 1 (although it’s highly unlikely he’ll play then). The bottom line is there’s room to be optimistic about Kadri coming back. — Shilton

What can the Lightning expect out of Brayden Point?

It’s tough to say. Point suffered a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the first round. Jon Cooper told me that with a similar injury in the regular season, the expected timeline would be four to six weeks, and we’re just at the front end of that now. Point has worked extremely hard in rehab to get to this position, and I get the sense he would have played Game 7 of the conference finals had the series gone back to New York. Cooper said Tuesday that Point could play in Game 1.

Cooper also told me this situation isn’t quite like Steven Stamkos in 2020, when the captain suited up because he wanted to give himself a chance, even knowing he had the possibility of aggravating the injury. Point isn’t at the same risk.

The first few times I watched Point skate over the past two weeks, it was clear he wasn’t comfortable, and he spilled into the boards at least twice. He has looked much smoother in the past few days, but doing line rushes during practice and playing at game speed are two very different things. — Kaplan

Who scores the most goals in the Stanley Cup Final? Most points?

Most Points: Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning winger is an offensive gem for them at 5-on-5 and on the power play. His 1.35 points per game leads the team, and there’s no reason to expect that pace to slow against the Avalanche’s goaltending.

Most Goals: Nathan MacKinnon. The Avalanche center is averaging 1.71 expected goals per 60 minutes of play at all strengths. A player with 11 goals in 14 games with MacKinnon’s shot volume should be able to do it for one more round. — Wyshynski

What is your Cup pick and why?

I picked the Avalanche in seven games. There are a couple of reasons for that:

The first is that Colorado has been dominant throughout the postseason. While Tampa Bay has successfully — and unsurprisingly — handled its ups and downs, there haven’t been many downs at all for the Avalanche. Even in games Colorado didn’t play especially well, the Avs found a way to get the job done — and fast. Sweeping the Nashville Predators maybe wasn’t a huge surprise. But making Edmonton look so meager? That was an eye-opener. Colorado is legit.

The second reason I’m bullish on the Avalanche is this just feels like their moment. Again, the Lightning are an incredible team and could just as easily prove me wrong. Colorado has been disappointed and frustrated by its shortcomings the past couple of seasons. The drive to finally break through and not let this opportunity slip is palpable. The Avalanche seem to appreciate they have the confluence of talent and opportunity right now. And maybe that will create a smidgen more confidence and audacity that will push Colorado past the defending champs. — Shilton

Before the season, I picked the Avs over the Lightning in the Final, so I stuck with it for consistency. I think this is going to be tight. I really feel it’s going seven games. And I believe if Colorado wins, it’s Cale Makar who wins the Conn Smythe Trophy. — Kaplan

My Stanley Cup playoff prognostications have been an abject embarrassment this season, as you can no doubt tell by the lack of championships for both my preseason pick, the Islanders, and my postseason pick, the Florida Panthers. So congratulations or I’m sorry to the Colorado Avalanche, whom I’ve prognosticated to win the Cup in six games.

The Avalanche have been a steamroller all postseason because of their scoring depth and their blazing speed, which I think is going to be tough for the Lightning to slow down. The Avs have really found their groove at even strength in the playoffs (2.91 expected goals per 60). The Lightning are an elite defensive team with the world’s best goaltender, and that gave me significant pause in making this pick. But I truly believe this Colorado team is made of sterner stuff than the Leafs, Panthers and Rangers teams that wilted under adversity while the veteran Lightning embraced it. The Avs are a lot like the Lightning in that way: learning from past mistakes to understand how to win in the playoffs.

But boy are the Avalanche going to need a save from somebody. Dollars to doughnuts, I bet it ends up being Pavel Francouz winning the day. — Wyshynski

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