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Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche Stanley Cup Preview

Will the Lightning achieve the three-peat or will the Best of the West de-throne them and reach their potential?

Tampa Bay Lightning v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to the question asked in the deck above. I’ve been thinking about it for the last three days and the best I can come up with a decided shoulder shrug. The punters are leaning towards the Colorado Avalanche as the favorites to win the series, but can anyone ever count out this version of the Tampa Bay Lightning? God knows we’ve tried to at points in their series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Rangers, but they pulled through.

My initial gut reaction when the match-up was cemented with the Lightning’s Game Six victory over the Rangers was that Tampa Bay would have trouble keeping up with the Avalanche, who romped their way to the Stanley Cup finals with just two losses in three series. Nathan MacKinnon, Cal Makar, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Nazem Kadri - every time I flipped on one of their games they were racing up and down the ice. It was a night and day difference from the grind-it-out wins the Lightning were racking up.

The two teams took different approaches to getting to the Stanley Cup Final. Tampa Bay overcame some self-inflicted mistakes and scored just enough to beat their opponents (52 goals for, 41 goals against). The Avalanche overwhelmed their opponents (65 goals for, 40 goals against) and their own flaws by scoring 4.64 goals a game in their 14 games.

So my initial thought was Colorado would win comfortably in five or six games. Sure, Andrei Vasilevskiy may steal a game or the Lightning might catch the Av’s a little rusty after their 8-day layoff, but in the end the superior offense would prevail.

Then I started looking deeper into the stats and realized that Colorado’s shimmering offense might be masking some murky defensive issues that the Lightning could take advantage of. Couple that with a little Jon Cooper Playoff Philosophy - it’s more important to keep the puck out of your own net than it is to put it in your opponent’s. Defend your zone well and that will lead to offensive opportunities.

If the Lightning get caught trying to outgun the Avalanche, chances are things will end badly for them. The Lightning are going to try and do what they did to New York and Florida - bottle them up in their own zone, eliminate the transition game through the neutral zone, and make them work 200 feet for every offensive opportunity.

The key factor in accomplishing that will be to maintain possession of the puck. If they turn it over like they did against the Rangers in the first two games of the ECF, Colorado will have a field day with them. Tampa Bay just doesn’t have the skating speed to chase down the Avalanche if Colorado forces turnovers in the neutral zone. That’s just a fact. It’s just the way the Lightning are built. Could the 2018-19 Lightning run up and down the ice with Colorado? Undoubtedly. However, the 2021-22 Lightning could be built to stop Colorado’s high-powered offense.

It all starts in net. The goaltender tale of the tape leans heavily in the favor of the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy on one side and Darcy Kuemper (or Pavel Francouz) on the other is not a fair fight.

While Vasilevskiy hasn’t been quite as lights out as he has been in the previous two runs, he’s been pretty darn good. So far he’s 12-5 with a .928 save percentage and 2.27 goals against average. He’s saved 10.65 goals above expected and stopped 94.89% of the first shots he’s seen. While he’s had some decidedly non-Vasilevskiy games, Hockey Reference has him with 12 quality starts (defined as having a save percentage higher than his season save percentage) out of 17, a higher percentage than he had in either of the two previous Cup runs.

Through the Avalanche’s 14 games they’ve shot an excellent 9.59% at 5v5. Their accuracy has helped them score 44 goals despite an expected goals for of 30.76. They are outperforming their expected offense through three series. Some of that can be tied to their offensive talent. MacKinnon is really, really good at hockey. However, some of that can also be linked with some bad goaltending on the other side. There is a really good chance that Vasy helps narrow the gap between those two numbers.

The Avalanche goalkeeping has been average at best. It looks like Darcy Kuemper is healthy and ready to resume his spot as the number starter after leaving Game One of the Western Conference Final with an upper body injury. In the 10 games that he’s played in the postseason he’s posted a 2.65 GAA and .897 SV%. Good but not great. He’s also at -5.83 GSAx in all situations which is not good or great. In fact it ranks dead last among all playoff goaltenders according to Evolving Hockey. He’s also posted a 92.23 first-save percentage which puts him toward the bottom of the rankings in that category.

If Francouz does end up playing his stats aren’t that much different. In 6 games he’s at .906 SV% and 2.86 GAA with a -1.72 GSAx and a 90.62 first-save percentage.

For the Lightning it’s going to be a little different experience than facing Igor Shesterkin. If we look at the goals scored vs. expected goals numbers for the Lightning, they are more than do for some offense. They have scored 28 goals against an expected goals of 37.32. The Cirelli/Killorn/Hagel line accounts for 4.27 of those expected goals, so you know they are due for some offense.

In short, Vasy has been pretty good and there in lies the Lightning’s main advantage. For as good as the Colorado offense has been, their defense has been, well, average. Overall, they’ve only allowed 2.86 goals per game, third in the playoffs, Not bad considering they’ve played the third best offense in the regular season (St. Louis Blues), the seventh (Edmonton Oilers), and the thirteenth (Nashville Predators). Bully for them.

One thing to note is that since Samuel Girard was knocked out of the series against St. Louis with a broken sternum, the Avalanche’s goals against per game is 3.29. They’ve had to insert Jack Johnson into the third pairing with Josh Manson and that combination has not been great. in 49 minutes of 5v5 ice time together they are well underwater at 47.46% FF (unblocked shot attempts) and a 35.46 xGF%.

It’ll be interesting to see how they do against a team like the Lightning that has three lines with the potential to score and a fourth line (assuming the School Bus Line is put back together) that tilts the ice into the offensive zone. That’s a lot different than having to shut down a one-line team like the Oilers or a Nashville team that was gassed and beat up by the time they reached the playoffs.

The top pairing of Cale Makar and Devon Toews has gotten by on generating offense and keeping the puck 200 feet from their own net. They are alright in their own zone, but can get caught running around a bit or looking to spring the offense. Makar could be the x-factor in the series, though. I’m not sure the Lightning have played against a player like him over their past three runs. Maybe Miro Heiskanen for the Dallas Stars in 2020, but Makar is more of a rover than a true defenseman. His ability to generate offense in any zone makes him a nightmare for match-ups.

The Lightning coaching staff has shown the ability to nullify a team’s offense. They drained the Maple Leafs offense in Games Six and Seven of that series and denied the Panthers any 5v5 offense in the sweep despite both teams supposedly having the speed to challenge the Lightning defense. After a sloppy two games against New York, they held the Rangers to barely any 5v5 offense over the final four games.

Coach Cooper will have a game plan to counter the attack that’s led by Nathan MacKinnon (18 points, 11 goals). Expect MacKinnon, who has been playing with Landeskog (8 goals, 9 assists), and Valeri Nichushkin (5 goals, 4 assists). That trio is responsible for 14 of their 45 5v5 goals in the postseason (31.1%). Expect that line to see as much of Anthony Cirelli and his gang as possible early in the series. If they can shut down MacKinnon’s line like they did the Mika Zibanajad line at even strength, Coach Cooper won’t care if they put up another goose egg on offense.

The Big Question for Colorado will be the health of Nazem Kadri. After getting injured in Game Three against Edmonton following a cheap shot from Evander Kane the Avalanche lost one of their best secondary scorers. Kadri had 6 goals and 8 assists in all play with 7 of those assists registering as primary ones. If he is able to go, it gives the Avalanche a little more depth and forces the Lightning to have to keep an eye on at least two lines.

Of course, if Brayden Point returns for the Lightning, that could negate the return of Kadri a bit and give the Avalanche a couple of things to worry about defensively. He practiced on the third line with Nick Paul and Ross Colton. Not only would that be a fun little defensive unit, they should also be able to throw some pucks in the net.

The Lightning’s offensive style should give Colorado some fits as well. The Avs belief that the best defense is a good offense does leave them open to being exploited by a team that can forecheck and cycle the puck (hey that’s what the Lightning do!) Again, keeping control of the puck, winning board battles, and being the first to loose pucks will be key for the Bolts to keep the Colorado defense chasing them around in the zone.

Special teams will be another spot where the Lightning might have an edge as well. Through their first three series the Avalanche have allowed goals 75.7% of the times they’ve been shorthanded. It wasn’t a case of the Oilers and Connor McDavid taking them to town, either. Nashville scored 3 times in 10 chances and the Blues potted 4 out of 13.

The Lightning have put up 14 power play goals total (with 2 coming on 5-on-3’s) in 62 chances for a 22.6% success rate. The teams they scored them against all had about the same success as the Avalanche on the penalty kill with the Rangers being slightly better (80%) and the Panthers worse (71.8%).

It’s another area where adding Point back into the line-up would be a boon for the Lightning. Corey Perry has been okay filling in at the bumper role in front of the net, but he just doesn’t have the release Point has at this stage of his career.

There is one drawback to this plan, though. The Avalanche just don’t take a lot of penalties. In fact, on a per game basis they are the least penalized team in the playoffs averaging just 6:42 penalty minutes per outing. Compare that to the Lightning’s 11:49 per game. However, if we go back up to the part about the Lightning getting their game going in the offensive zone, that could lead to some hooking and holding penalties as the Av’s start chasing them around the zone.

The series will really come down to what we’ve been focusing on throughout the entire playoffs. The team that has the best chance to beat the Lightning is the Tampa Bay Lightning. When they cough up the puck and take dumb penalties, they lose. When they control the puck and are sound in their own zone, they win games. Colorado will pressure them and try to force those turnovers, it’s beholden to keep things simple and move the puck quickly, but accurately.

This is going to be a close match-up, there is no doubt about that. It will probably be a long series as well. That means the Lightning are going to lose some games (shocking I know). So if they do drop the first game or the second game or, god forbid, the first AND second game lets not have a collective freak out okay? We’ve already done that in a couple of other series and they showed us there was nothing to worry about.

They weren’t exhausted after the first three games in Toronto and the three long stretches of playoffs hadn’t worn them down after the first two games against New York. This is the Stanley Cup Final and they have a shot for immortality. That’s going to power them through any nagging injury or weariness they may be feeling at this point.

They may look a little awkward in the early part of this series. There are going to be shifts where they are pinned in their own zone for stretches longer than The Batman movie. Nikita Kucherov is going to miss some passes. Corey Perry is going to slash someone and then look dumbfounded when the ref calls it. Alex Killorn is going to fall down for no reason at all. That’s what the Lightning do.

Lets cut them some slack when it happens. Because at the end of being pinned down they are going to have a great scoring chance on a counter-rush. Kucherov is going to make a play that drops your jaw. Corey Perry is going to score a rebound goal as he’s getting knocked to his ass. Killorn, well Killorn is still going to fall down, but it will be after he wins a battle along the boards to keep the puck in the zone. That’s also what the Lightning do.

As I’ve written before, this team isn’t done until the final handshake. As long as they are in it, they have a chance to win it.

If Colorado does manage to win the series, then hats off to them. It won’t be because the league or the refs are against the Lightning, it will be because they earned it. All we can hope for at this point is a fun series without any controversy or dirty hits. Bad calls are going to happen, but when you look back they will pretty much even out. It’s the Best of the West versus the Undisputed Reigning Champion. What more could we want out of a Stanley Cup Final? So sit back and enjoy it!

Lightning in Seven.