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Stanley Cup Final Preview and Prediction

For the third consecutive season, the Tampa Bay Lightning are in the Stanley Cup Final. Their mission: To win a third consecutive Cup. It would be the first time this has happened in the salary cap era. Hell, since the original expansion era (since 1967) they would be only the third team to complete the 3Peat. Their opponent in this historic Final is the Colorado Avalanche. So, with the battle beginning tonight, here is my Stanley Cup Preview and Prediction. 

The Avalanche seem to be everybody’s darling choice in this match up. Certainly, they are the favorites of most of the Las Vegas oddsmakers. They clearly punished their opponents in the Western Conference playoffs. The Avs went 12-2 earning the berth in the Final. It was as impressive a run for them to get to this point and it figures into this Stanley Cup Final preview. Many prognosticators are saying the Lightning have not yet faced a juggernaut like the Avalanche. That may be true but perhaps we should take a deeper dive than accept what many are saying at face value.

Offense

There is no mistaking the offense that Colorado possesses. They were fourth in the NHL in goals per game during the regular season. On its face, this is impressive except for what the Lightning have done in these playoffs. Tampa has already BEAT the teams that were the top two scoring teams during the regular season in the first two rounds.  There is star power offensively on both sides. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are Colorado’s big three. Their production, 52 total points in 14 games, is slightly better than Tampa’s top three. Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat have 54 total points. 

The Avalanche have a distinct leg up on the offense their defensive corps produce. Led by Cale Makar and Devon Toews, they outproduced the Lightning defensemen 56 points to 33 points. If Colorado gets a sizable difference from their Dmen, it could sway the series their way. I’ll be the first to admit the offensive numbers put forth by Colorado these playoffs is damn impressive. Then I see they faced Nashville without their starting goalie Jussi Sarros. Then they faced St. Louis without their starting goalie Jordan Binnington in the last four games of the six game series. 

If that wasn’t enough, in the Conference Finals, the Avs faced Edmonton’s number one goalie Mikko Koskinen for only 31 minutes in the series. Despite their fortunate breaks, this Colorado offense is no joke. They have speed, size and can score in bunches. Advantage: Colorado

Defense

Conventional wisdom states that defense wins championships. The defense that the Lightning have played since Game 6 of the first round against Toronto is championship caliber. If you’re not sure that the Lightning defense isn’t playing well, look at the goals per game they are giving up. In the regular season, they gave up 2.78 goals per game and in these playoffs it is down to 2.41 per game. This 13% improvement may not seem like much until you realize that they faced the top two teams in goals per game in Toronto and Florida. They held the highest scoring team in the league (Florida) to 3 goals in 4 games. It’s ludicrous to think that the Colorado offense puts a scare in the Tampa defense. 

Victor Hedman anchors this defense. He, along with Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev makes as good a top 4 defense in the NHL. They have shown this lockdown defense in their victories this postseason. This shows up in both blocked shots and hits. Tampa has 273 blocks in 15 games to Colorado’s 206. The Lightning also have 617 hits to the Avs 522.  Where the Avs basically remained flat giving up 2.83 goals per game in regular season to 2.86 in the playoffs. The Lightning defense improved in goals given up per game and simply stated, this is championship defense. Further, knowing that of all 16 playoff teams seeded from regular season standings, the Avalanche played the 16th, 10th and 12th seeds. Except for 2 games they faced backup goalies. While the Lightning played the 1st, 4th and 7th seeds. No question for me, which defense is ready to play for the Cup. Advantage: Lightning  

Special Teams

Every team in the playoffs wants to kill at least 80% of their penalties and score on at least 20% of their power plays. The Lightning are doing that at 82.5% on the PK and 22.6% on the PP. The Avalanche are halfway there. They are scoring at 31% on the power play but only killing off 75% of their penalties. While it may seem that Colorado isn’t doing the job on the penalty kill, they did face the 6th, 2nd and 3rd best regular season power play teams. But Colorado went from a regular season PK effectiveness of 79% to 75%. They definitely played some very good power plays so this slight decrease can be explained.

For the Lightning, they went from a regular season 80% effectiveness on the PK to 82.5%. They played the 1st, 5th and 4th best regular season power plays so far in these playoffs. I’ll leave it up to you to determine which performance thus far is more impressive. On the power play, Colorado’s 31% is stellar. It’s often said that the goalie is a team’s most important penalty killer. Not to take away too much for the Avs, but again they faced backup goalies in 12 of the 14 games they played this postseason. Advantage: Slight to Lightning

Coaching

Yes, Jon Cooper has never won a Jack Adams Trophy and that is a wrong that should be fixed. Cooper has his team in their fourth Stanley Cup Final in his nine full seasons at the helm. They have been in 6 Conference Finals. His resume should be well known. 

Jared Bednar has been the Colorado coach for six seasons and has led them to five playoffs. Unfortunately, for Avs fans, this is where the comparison with Cooper stops. Until this year, Bednar did not get his team past the second round. It is my firm belief that had they not lucked out with facing backup goalies in every previous playoff round this year, they wouldn’t be in this Cup Final. Advantage: Lightning

Intangibles

Both teams have playoff experience. Only one team has deep playoff experience but I don’t expect either team faltering because it’s the Cup. The main intangible is going to be injuries. For Colorado, goalie Darcy Kuemper was injured in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. He missed the last three games of that series. All reports say that he will take the ice on Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The question then becomes how much rust is there for Kuemper? 

The other two main injuries are two centers for each team. Nazem Kadri was hurt in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final and missed Game 4 with a hand injury. As of this morning, he has begun skating but not yet participating in full practice with his teammates. Brayden Point for the Lightning has not played since Game 7 of the first round against Toronto. Point has been skating for a little over a week and yesterday saw full practice participation including working with the number one power play unit. Both Kadri and Point should see playing time in the series but it appears Point will be ready before Kadri. Advantage: Lightning

Stanley Cup Final Preview

I realize that my prediction on this piece will be looked by some as absolutely crazy. Yes, I have seen every Lightning game this season and only a handful of Avalanche games. But I predicted the Lightning in six over New York because I felt the Rangers caught amazing breaks in the first two rounds by playing Pittsburgh and Carolina. You see, Pittsburgh was down to its third goalie after Game 1 of that 7 game series. They also played against Carolina’s backup goalie in that series. When they faced Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with his playoff resume, they realized right away: He ain’t Louie Domingue. 

I think Colorado had a similar fortune. Facing three backups in 12 of the 14 games they played, they are going to realize something real fast. There is a big difference between getting the puck past Mike Smith than Andrei Vasilevskiy. So, that’s my Stanley Cup Final Preview and Prediction: Lightning in 5. 

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