Rob Maaddi, FISM News
The only team now standing between the Tampa Bay Lightning and a three-peat is the well-rested Colorado Avalanche.
When the puck drops for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Denver on Wednesday night, the Avalanche will be playing for the first time since completing a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers on June 6.
The Lightning just wrapped up their victory over the New York Rangers on Saturday, rallying from a two-game deficit to win four in a row.
Will Colorado be rusty after eight days without facing an opponent?
“At this point of the year, it’s not very hard to get up for the games,” winger Mikko Rantanen said. “It’s the finals, so it doesn’t matter if it would be a 40-day break. I think everybody will be mentally ready to play.”
The extra rest was welcomed for some of the Avalanche’s injured players.
“I feel good about getting a couple of days away from the rink to get sort of decompressed and then start gearing things up a little bit,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s too much time. I like the focus of our group, I like the work of our group.”
It’s unknown whether Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz start for Colorado in goal. Kuemper missed the bulk of the Western Conference final with an injury but has been deemed healthy. Francouz is 6-0 this postseason, though it’s likely Bednar would turn to Kuemper. The veteran goalie was 37-12-9 with a .921 save percentage in the regular season.
The Avalanche led the Western Conference with 119 points in the regular season, swept Nashville in the first round, and beat St. Louis in six games before eliminating the Oilers.
Rantanen led Colorado with 92 points, including 36 goals, in the regular season and he has 17 points in 14 playoff games. Nathan MacKinnon (88 points), Nazem Kadri (87 points), and Cale Makar (86 points) also paced the Avalanche in scoring. Makar leads the way with 22 points in the postseason and MacKinnon has a team-high 11 goals.
“I’m glad we’re playing Tampa,” MacKinnon said. “There’s no Cinderella story or anything: Two of the best teams in the league going at it and really excited for this challenge. And it’s going to be very, very difficult, but I believe this group and we all believe in each other. Hopefully, we get this done.”
The Avalanche will meet a seasoned and formidable opponent in Tampa Bay.
The Lightning have won 11 straight postseason series and are trying to become the sixth team in NHL history to win three consecutive Cups. The New York Islanders last did it in 1980-83.
Tampa has plenty of playoff experience led by captain Steven Stamkos, who has scored a team-leading nine goals in 17 games this postseason. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, and Pat Maroon are all among Tampa’s key contributors.
“Each guy is just a part of the process. And that’s what makes this team so special and tight and unique,” Stamkos added. “We don’t care how it gets done. You just need to get it done.”
The Lightning have been challenged throughout the postseason. Tampa overcame a 3-2 series deficit against Toronto in the first round and lost the first two games at New York against the Rangers.
“That’s been a big theme of ours, is putting our stamp on history. And you can’t do that without winning and being committed and doing all the things and not exhaling,” coach Jon Cooper said. “The guys have done a phenomenal job, especially in the Toronto series when we were down 3-2. When there are no tomorrows, they gave us two more months of tomorrows.”