TAMPA - We’ve reached the stage of the Stanley Cup final where maintenance days are a relative term, and you occasionally need a decoder to sort through the status of several players.
The biggest question going into Game 6 is the status of Colorado Avalanche winger Valeri Nichushkin, who has been a force throughout the playoffs and has been one of the most effective and impactful players in this series with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Nichushkin was among the four key Avalanche forwards who were not full participants in the morning skate, though he did come out briefly in a T-shirt, shorts and skates rather than full gear to test out the lower-body issue he’s working his way through.
After the last game, Nichushkin was seen on a cart with his right leg wrapped with an ice bag and he was hobbling around the rink before hopping on the ice to do some puck handling and take a few shots.
“Yeah, we're hoping he's going to be in tonight,” said Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.
Nichushkin has four goals and six points in the series - including a goal and an assist in Game 5 - to give him nine goals and 16 points in 19 games, leaving him on the periphery of the Conn Smythe Trophy discussion.
He’s also one of the most important penalty killers and responsible two-way players on the Avalanche roster.
“He's been great. Key player for us. Playing really well,” said Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen. “Big body. Skates really well and also very good defensively. Big player for us. We'll see what happens.”
Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog usually skips the morning skate and it’s not abnormal for Kadri to not take part, especially since he’s only been back for two games as he continues to deal with the pain associated with playing through a broken right thumb.
As for Andre Burakovsky, he continues to deal with a suspected hand injury and his status would be in the questionable category.
Burakovsky has missed the past three games and didn’t spend much time on the ice on Sunday morning.
“We’ll see,” said Bednar.
Playing for Point
The Lightning’s hearts are breaking for Brayden Point, who will miss a fourth consecutive game with “a severe injury,” according to coach Jon Cooper.
Once again Point skated Sunday. He is rehabbing a suspected knee injury with hopes of jumping into a potential Game 7.
“Me and Pointer have been good buddies ever since I got here, and I obviously feel for him,” said Anthony Cirelli, who has been hampered by an undisclosed ailment of his own. “He's just a great support guy for all of us, just seeing him out there battling and trying to get better each and every single day — and the motivation.
“In the locker room, too, he brings so much leadership, he's a guy that everyone wants to be around. So, we're going out there and we're playing for him.”
That Point has played just nine games during Tampa’s two-month run has been difficult on everyone involved.
Cooper had to have a difficult conversation with his star following Game 2 of the final, when it became apparent his comeback attempt was premature.
“It’s tricky, too, because players are used to playing at a certain way,” Cooper explained. “If they don’t feel confident in playing at the calibre they’re used to, it almost works against them.
“Who knows? If the series goes one more game, you never know.”
Second Time’s a Charm?
Although the Avalanche worked hard to channel their nervous energy in Game 5 with the Stanley Cup in the building, veteran forward Andrew Cogliano and Rantanen both admitted the team wasn’t as sharp as usual - and that probably wasn’t a coincidence, given the amplified levels of outside noise as the Avalanche tried to close out the two-time defending champs.
“At the end of the day, [Game 5] was a new experience for everyone on our team pretty much,” said Cogliano. “The bottom line is, is it's really about the guys in our room. That's ultimately what this is all about. That's our team and that's for Tampa as well. They'll say the same thing.
“A lot of stuff goes on on the outside. And it's easy to get involved in that. But the point of being here is it's a team sport and you're basically competing as an athlete with 22 other guys. We've had a very narrow focus, I feel, all playoffs. That's been the strength of our team. We've had a team that's just been very driven. Last [game] I don't think we probably gave our best effort. I think we played a decent game, but not (good) enough to win and I think we get back to who we've been all playoffs and the strength of our team, which has been a focused and really hard working, driven team and you throw it out there and you see what happens.”
The Avalanche have yet to lose consecutive games in the playoffs and their ability to park those rare losses has been a calling card for them.
“It was the first time for all the guys being in that position. For sure there are nerves,” said Rantanen. “Everybody can say there's not but everybody had a little nerves since it was the first time. The second time is going to be easier. We've been quick learners the whole postseason after losses. So I think every time it's a little bit easier”
The Avalanche will also be looking to get off to a quicker start, both in terms of pace and production, as they’ve spent more than 112 minutes trailing and fewer than five minutes playing with the lead since Game 3.
“We've had success obviously in this series when we've jumped out to a nice lead,” said Bednar. “For them I think (playing with the lead) just gives them the confidence with their goaltender, their defensive structure to be able to kind of try and lock things down a little bit more without having to press to score. The lead is big and I think the start to tonight's game is going to be really important.”
The Lightning expect to roll out the same lineup that swiped Game 5 in Denver, so expect to see plenty of the champs’ trusted bottom six.
The Lightning’s edgy fourth line — smart, bruising and veteran — may not be impacting the scoreboard, but the trio of Riley Nash, Pat Maroon and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is finding its groove as this series goes deep.
Prolonged O-zone shifts resulted in that group generating 73 per cent of shot attempts in Game 5’s road victory, setting the next line up with positive momentum.
They can wear out the Avalanche, forcing them to chip and change. At one point, Colorado defenceman Josh Manson skated a three-minutes-plus shift because he couldn’t escape his own end.
“They have some heavy bodies in their bottom six,” acknowledged Colorado fourth-liner Andrew Coglinano. “Patty, Bellemare, Nash, they’re guys who when they get pucks in our end, they can hold them and create zone time. I think our advantage and our identity these whole playoffs has been our skating, our willingness to forecheck, hound pucks and be on our toes.
“We need to get back to maybe doing a little better of a job. When we do that, we’ll create momentum for our team and create momentum for our big guys to go out and hopefully get guys tired out there.”
The thermostat in Tampa Sunday will hit 33°C with 58 per cent humidity. Typical hockey weather, no?
The heat outside challenges the rink crew to keep the sheet in championship condition on June 26.
“Ice is kinda garbage,” Nazem Kadri told ABC during his Game 4 intermission interview.
Still, the eye test would back that up. Players were catching edges, and the softer surface takes away from Colorado’s speed game and caters more to the Lightning’s grinding style.
"The ice, I think, is different than in Colorado,” Manson said. “It is very humid there, and I know it's tough to manage. It feels like the game gets maybe a little bit choppier at times, so you've got to look after the puck a little bit better. But both teams are playing on it, so it's the same for both of us.”
Projected Game 6 lineups
Artturi Lehkonen-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen
Nazem Kadri-Gabe Landeskog-Valeri Nichushkin
Andre Burakovsky-J.T. Compher-Alex Newhook
Andrew Cogliano-Darren Helm-Logan O’Connor
(if Burakovsky can’t play, O’Connor jumps to the third line and Nico Sturm likely draws in on the fourth line)
Devon Toews-Cale Makar
Jack Johnson-Josh Manson
Bowen Byram-Erik Johnson
Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel-Anthony Cirelli-Alex Killorn
Ross Colton-Nick Paul-Corey Perry
Pat Maroon-Pierre-Edouard Bellemare-Riley Nash
Victor Hedman-Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh-Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev-Zach Bogosgian