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Stanley Cup Final Preview: Breaking Down the Lightning, Avalanche

This is for all the big ones. The Lightning and Avalanche are set to kick things off, and Adam Proteau takes a look at the biggest storylines heading into the series.

The Stanley Cup final is almost here, and so it’s time for a breakdown of the series between the Colorado Avalanche and the back-to-back defending Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Our predictions for the conference finals were a sparkling 2-0, making our predictions record for this post-season 9-for-14. Let’s see if we can nail the Cup Final and improve our prediction success one more time:

Colorado Avalanche vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Winner: Tampa Bay, in six games

The Why: Let’s begin by recognizing the incredible season the Avalanche have had. They were the Western Conference’s best regular season team. They swept the Nashville Predators in the first round of the playoffs. They outlasted a veteran, accomplished St. Louis Blues team in Round Two, then swept the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Final. When you get to the Cup Final and only have two playoff losses, you’re doing something very right.

The Lightning, on the other hand, have had a roller-coaster post-season. They were nearly eliminated by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, then swept the powerful Florida Panthers in the second round. And in the Eastern Final, they rebounded from a 2-0 series deficit to the New York Rangers to win the series in six games. You could say the Avalanche had an easier road to the Cup Final, but you’d have to factor in the reality that Tampa Bay had a tougher level of competition to beat.

But what this prediction comes down to is – surprise! – goaltending. Both teams have deep, fast, skilled forwards, and both teams have talented blueliners including a star D-man currently up for a Norris Trophy (Cale Makar for the Avs, and Victor Hedman for the Bolts). But only the Lightning have a true superstar in net in defending Conn Smythe Trophy-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Granted, Vasilevskiy hasn’t faced a offense-minded leviathan quite like Colorado, but he has beaten a very good puck-possession team in the Leafs, and he completely dominated the Panthers, who had the league`s top offense this year. When Vasilevskiy is on his game – which he was from the overtime of Game Six against Toronto, to the end of the Panthers series, and then again from Games Three through Six against the Rangers – he`s all but unbeatable.

Moreover, the Lightning have demonstrated they can simplify their game enough, and be patient enough, to beat a star goalie like Rangers No. 1 Tampa Bay Shesterkin. So now, Tampa Bay is tasked with beating Colorado`s goaltending tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz. Before he was injured against Edmonton and missed most of the series, Kuemper’s individual numbers (.897 save percentage, 2.65 goals-against average) were unimpressive, and Francouz’s stats (.906 SP, 2.86 G.A.A.) weren’t much better. Compare that to Vasilevskiy’s metrics (.928 SP, 2.27 G.A.A.), and you see where the Bolts have a clear advantage.

Would it be a huge upset if Colorado beat Tampa Bay to win their first Cup since the 2000-01 campaign? No. If the Lightning look as discombobulated as they did in their first two games against the Rangers, the Avalanche will pounce, and try to unnerve Vasilevskiy the rest of the way with constant pressure in the Bolts’ zone. Stranger things have happened.

However, until they demonstrate they can get to Tampa’s level, and rise above it, the Avs are going to be regarded as a slight underdog here. Colorado does have home ice advantage, and that may be a difference-maker in a long series. But the Lightning have been a resilient, potent, well-coached machine, and their core of stars are more accomplished than the Avalanche’s.

It’s really that simple for Colorado: make Vasilevskiy look human, and they’ve got a solid shot at winning it all. Make Vasilevskiy look like a goaltending god, and they’re in big trouble. In the end, we see the Lightning as the type of experienced, well-balanced squad that can win any way their opponent wants to play, and for that reason – as well as their superior netminding – we’re giving the nod to Tampa Bay.

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