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Five Storylines to Watch During the Stanley Cup Final

With Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final only hours away, let's take a look at the five most pressing storylines heading into the series.
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Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final is nearly upon us.

What a time to be alive. 

Before the puck drops and these two absolute titans of the NHL do battle for what should be an absolute slugfest of a series, let's go through the five most prominent storylines to get you set for the action ahead. 

5. Can Darcy Kuemper Do This? 

Darcy Kuemper has been two things throughout these playoffs: Bad or injured. 

Sometimes he's been both at the same time. But the one thing he hasn't been for any consistent period is good. And that can't continue if the Avs want to win. 

Kuemper said he'd find out Tuesday night whether or not he's starting Game 1. He likely will be, of course, given that he's their guy and has been ever since the organization paid a massive price to acquire him this past offseason. So, that's a good start. 

After missing the final two games of the Avalanche's Western Conference Final sweep due to injury, Kuemper reiterated on Tuesday that he's healthy, telling reporters that he's ready to step in the crease if he gets the call. 

A continuation of the .897 save percentage he's ridden with through 10 starts would likely change that, however, with Kuemper's -3.7 goals saved above average across that span really making me wonder if he can live up to the moment he's about to step into. 

In fact, Kuemper's postseason numbers throughout his career are pretty troubling, too. In 24 career playoff starts, Kuemper is rocking a -6.8 GSAA, having never posted a positive result in that metric in any playoffs he's played nine games or more. 

It's not a massive sample size, but it's big enough. Kuemper is lucky the Avs have managed to get this far with what he's given them. Now, he needs to pull his weight. And the jury is still out on whether he can do that. 

4. Will Nazem Kadri Return? 

It's doubtful that Nazem Kadri returns to the Avalanche lineup for Game 1. That shouldn't be that surprising, really, give that the 31-year-old missed the entire Western Conference Final and underwent surgery to repair his injured thumb less than two weeks ago. 

Last time I checked, thumbs are pretty important to gripping a hockey stick. And you usually need a hockey stick to play hockey. 

Neither coach Jared Bednar nor GM Joe Sakic would offer an update on Kadri's status on Tuesday. Kadri has been skating with the Avs over the past few weeks, however, which is a good sign, albeit doing so without a stick that again hints towards the still-unclear status of his injured thumb. 

Something tells me, though, that Kadri will not watch this entire series from the sidelines -- especially if it goes beyond five games. Not without the entire National Guard being deployed to hold him back. 

When he's been on the ice in these playoffs, Kadri has been so unbelievably dominant and important to the Avs' success that getting him back for any time at all would be crucial. 

Even when not accounting for the six goals and 14 points in 13 games he's crammed into his raw stat line, Kadri's ability to drive possession and influence scoring chances is an intrinsic part of Colorado's vaunted attack. The guy tilts the ice in the Avalanche's favor whenever he hops over the boards, with Kadri's 64.87 percent expected goal share and 65.06 percent share of available scoring chance generation being downright ludicrous. 

That is a player who performs at an elite level. And if the Avs can welcome Kadri back into the fold in the immediate future, that lineup is only going to get scarier. 

3. Will Brayden Point Play? And If So, How Effective Will He Be? 

The fact that we're even sitting here discussing whether or not Brayden Point will strap on skates and compete in an NHL game over the next few days is bonkers. 

If Point was a normal human being, doctors would have put him on bed rest until August, realistically. The Lightning center looked like he snapped every ligament in his knee when he went down back in Game 7 of the Lightning's first-round series versus the Maple Leafs, trying unsuccessfully to return following the intermission before walking off and not being seen since. 

Based on how that injury looked, I was expecting a torn ACL. But here we are, on the morning of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and Brayden Point is more or less a game-time decision. 

It's just absurd. 

Speaking to reporters during Tuesday's media day festivities, Cooper indicated that Point was "leaning towards playing, if not in Game 1 then Game 2". 

What role Point will play upon return, however, remains unclear, with Cooper indicating that Point's health will influence where he slots back in the lineup -- perhaps with him starting in the bottom-six initially and working his way back up. 

Point was skating in his usual spot on Tampa's top power-play unit during Tuesday's practice, so it looks as if he'll at least join his team's top guns on the man advantage -- regardless of where he ends up at even-strength. 

But even if he gets eased back into action, that's still a scary-good proposition from Cooper & Co, icing a bottom-six that features Brayden Point, even a version at 60-70 percent health.

In a series in which depth is so important, Point's return could give the Lightning an edge that pushes them over the top. 

2. Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche's Intertwined Legacy 

All those years of refusing to eat refined sugar are finally paying off. 

Nathan MacKinnon has been one of the NHL's elite players since the 2017-18 season, when he burst onto the scene with a 97-point campaign and hasn't looked back since. His rise, frankly, coincided with that of the Bednar-led Avalanche's, as the franchise rode their star to a miraculous redemption arc on the heels of a disastrous 48-point season in 2016-17 and established themselves as one of the game's elite teams.  

But for all of that regular-season success, the playoffs always seemed to end in disappointment. That black cloud has followed both MacKinnon and the Avalanche organization around for years, with their intertwined legacies being restricted as most franchise and franchise players' are. 

MacKinnon and the Avs now have a chance to wipe that all away. 

With 11 goals and 18 points in 14 playoff games, MacKinnon has found another level this year, helping drag his team to within four wins of hockey's highest peak. Sure, they'll get some brownie points for making it this far if they ultimately lose. And that's all well and good. But this Avs team, as it is currently constructed, will cease to exist this offseason. The time to cement their legacy is now. Right now. Or, frankly, never. 

This is likely the most pressure MacKinnon has ever been or will ever be under. How he reacts will go a long way to etching his name in the annals of hockey history. 

1. The Three-Peat

I mean, come on. This is the real story here. 

The Lightning could do something very few people thought was possible in the salary cap era. And not just that, but they're four wins away from capturing three straight Stanley Cups in the flat cap era, too, with COVID-19 preventing the NHL's cap from escalating since 2020 and forcing Julien Brisebois and his front office to somehow construct a championship roster with no financial growth to keep them from losing key players to free agency each offseason for three straight years. 

That's incredible. 

And before you come at me about Tampa's use of LTIR, let me just remind you that LTIR is available to all 32 NHL teams. It's your fault your team didn't find a way to go $18 million over the cap. Don't blame Tampa for being smarter. Step it up. 

Winning back-to-back Cups doesn't make you a dynasty. Winning back-to-back-to-back Cups makes you a dynasty. And if the Lightning manage to do that in an era specifically constructed by the powers that be to foster league-wide parity, they instantly rocket to the upper echelon of NHL history alongside the 80's Islanders and Oilers, and 70's Habs. 

What a remarkable feat they are on the cusp of. Take some time to appreciate greatness.

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