The two-time defending champs versus the up-and-comers who are looking to finally get over the top.
It’s a compelling clash that will feature a plethora of juicy storylines when the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche face off in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, which gets underway Wednesday at Ball Arena (8 p.m. ET, Sportsnet and Sportsnet NOW).
The Avalanche have been waiting patiently to see who their opponent would be and they got the answer to that question Saturday as the Lightning eliminated the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.
For the third time in as many rounds, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed only one goal in an elimination game, and Steven Stamkos delivered the series-clinching goal just 21 seconds after Frank Vatrano scored a power-play marker (with the Tampa Bay captain serving a minor penalty for holding) to tie the game in the third period.
It feels like these two teams have been on a collision course since these playoffs began, with the Lightning running the full gamut of emotions, from the ups-and-downs of the opening-round ouster of the Toronto Maple Leafs to the second-round sweep of the Florida Panthers.
That set the stage for a fascinating series with the Rangers, who took a commanding 2-0 series lead by winning the first two games on home ice before the Lightning rallied back to win the next four games — including several in dramatic fashion.
Over in the Western Conference, the Avalanche have resembled a well-oiled machine, sweeping the Nashville Predators in the opening round and taking out the St. Louis Blues in six games.
Another sweep occurred in the third round when the Avalanche played with incredible pace and bounced the Edmonton Oilers to qualify for the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in more than two decades (2001).
Can the Lightning hang onto the title belt and secure a three-peat or are the Avalanche poised for another magnificent moment on what has already been a wild ride for a franchise that has overcome some recent heartache in the form of three consecutive second-round exits?
“It's a step in the right direction. And it was good to move past another round,” Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog said after Game 4 against the Oilers. “We know the job's not finished.”
The Lightning also know the job is not finished, as they’ve reached the summit in each of the past two seasons and know what it takes to reach the ultimate goal.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at some of the matchups that could help determine the winner of what should be an epic battle for puck supremacy:
Nathan MacKinnon vs. Anthony Cirelli
The top centre on the Avalanche has been a man on a mission and it doesn’t matter if he’s going up against a Selke winner (Ryan O’Reilly) or being asked to try and slow down the best player on the planet (Connor McDavid), he’s been up for the assignment so far. MacKinnon has been praised by Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar for his willingness to sacrifice some offence to drill in on the details of his head-to-head battle.
Cirelli did an outstanding job at even strength against Mika Zibanejad in the Eastern Conference Final and you can bet Lightning head coach Jon Cooper is going to try and have Cirelli on the ice with MacKinnon whenever possible.
Victor Hedman vs. Cale Makar
A past Norris Trophy winner (2017-18) in Hedman and a future Norris Trophy winner in Makar and the value to their respective teams is off the charts. Hedman is fourth in team scoring (two goals, 14 points in 17 games), averages more than 25 minutes of ice time per game and is used in all situations.
Makar has been outstanding, delivering superb play in all three zones. By chipping in nine points in the four-game sweep of the Oilers (including a five-point night in the clincher), Makar is up to five goals and 22 points in 14 games, leaving him as a serious candidate for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Gabe Landeskog vs. Steven Stamkos
The captains are both playing fundamentally sound hockey, providing excellent leadership while chipping in offensively. Landeskog is second on the Avalanche in playoff goals (eight) and tied for third in points (17) in 14 games, while Stamkos leads the Lightning in goals (nine) and is third on the team in points (15). Both players have also been physically engaged and set the emotional tone for their teams.
Ondrej Palat vs. Artturi Lehkonen
This is the battle of wingers who are generally underrated by the general public but not by those who know them well or skate alongside them. Palat is a pending unrestricted free agent who won’t be short on suitors and his well-established value is on the rise after coming up with game-winning goals in Games 4 and 5 against the Rangers.
Speaking of flying somewhat under the radar, Lehkonen provided the series clincher against the Oilers in overtime. One of several low-maintenance acquisitions by Avalanche GM Joe Sakic prior to the NHL trade deadline, Lehkonen is someone Bednar can lean on, no matter what the situation is: protecting a lead, looking for the equalizer, killing penalties, or jumping onto the top power-play unit.
Both players contribute to all facets of the game and they do it well.
Mikko Rantanen vs. Nikita Kucherov
The narrative going into the Stanley Cup Final is much different than it was for Rantanen going into the series with the Oilers. Although Rantanen had been producing offence through the first two rounds (11 points in 10 games), he was limited to one empty-net goal, but he’s scored in four consecutive games (only one of them an empty-netter) and seems to have found the touch that allowed him to lead the Avalanche in goals (36) and points (92) during the regular season.
Meanwhile, Kucherov has put his remarkable vision and passing ability to great use, setting up teammates in pivotal moments (16 helpers in total) while also delivering seven goals, demonstrating the skill set that allowed him to be a key play driver.
Brayden Point vs. Nazem Kadri
Two incredibly valuable players are dealing with significant injuries, but both could be involved in this series before it is complete. Point missed a 10th consecutive game Saturday with a lower-body injury, though Cooper told reporters following Game 6 that the door remains open: “I don't know about the probability of Game 1, but it's extremely probable that he will play in the series.”
Earlier this week, Kadri had surgery on his injured right thumb, and Bednar told reporters in Denver that he was already back in the gym and should be back on the ice during the coming days.
Injury info is generally tough to come by, especially at this time of the year but both coaches would love to have these players at their disposal, even if they’re not 100 per cent. Point and Kadri are high-impact players when available and the series will be even better if both players are involved, provided their health allows for that to occur.
Andrei Vasilevskiy vs. Darcy Kuemper
This is one area where the Lightning appear to have a decided mismatch, at least on paper. Vasilevskiy had some uncharacteristic hiccups during the playoffs, but he’s been exceptional of late and resembling the goalie who has carried the mail and been almost unbeatable both after losses and in elimination games. Only Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers has saved more goals above expected (according to Money Puck) during the playoffs, and he’s got his save percentage up to .928 and his goals-against average down to 2.28.
Kuemper hasn’t played since leaving Game 1 of the Western Conference Final during the second period with an undisclosed upper-body injury but he served as the backup in Game 4 and told reporters in Denver last week that he’s fully healthy and ready to go, though he declined to go into detail about the nature of the injury. Pavel Francouz has done a nice job in relief, but the Avalanche are going to need Kuemper to find his regular-season form (.921 save percentage, 2.58 GAA) in order to try and knock off the two-time defending champions.