Finish these sentences…
• The Lightning will win the series if….
• The Avalanche will win the series if…
Adam Gretz, NHL writer
The Lightning will win the series if… Andrei Vasilevskiy keeps playing like an all-time great and if somebody after the Nikita Kucherov-Steven Stamkos-Ondrej Palat line picks up some slack offensively. That could be with a Brayden Point return, or Alex Killorn and/or Anthony Cirelli breaking out of their goal scoring slumps, or Brandon Hagel showing he was worth the price Tampa Bay paid at the trade deadline to acquire him from the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Avalanche will win the series if… they get adequate goaltending and their defense shuts down Tampa Bay’s top line. The Lightning have the better goalie, both teams have superstar forwards, but Colorado’s defense from top to bottom is better than the Lightning’s. Cale Makar is a superstar, Devon Toews is a top-pairing defender, and Bowen Byram is on his way to being a star. Add in solid veterans like Josh Manson and Erik Johnson and this defense is as good as you will find in the NHL, even without Samuel Girard.
James O’Brien, NHL writer
The Lightning will win the series if... they totally lock down the pace of this series, and make it about goaltending.
The Avalanche will win the series if… they’re able to dictate the pace, and take advantage of younger legs.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer
The Lightning will win the series if… they can successfully keep Colorado’s chances to the perimeter. Tampa Bay was exposed in Games 1 and 2 against the Rangers by allowing too many cross-crease passes leading to high-danger chances. When they finally began to shut that down in Game 3, the series changed in their favor.
It’ll also be about slowing down the fast Avalanche, which will require physicality — something Tampa Bay has delivered in the playoffs while averaging 36 hits per game.
The Avalanche will win the series if… Darcy Kuemper does not become a liability. It’ll be real difficult for Kuemper to be the best goaltender in the series, but he needs to be better than the .907 even strength save percentage he’s recorded in 10 games this postseason. The Avalanche can move the puck and score but being able to defend their own net could end up being the difference in the series.
Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor
The Lightning will win the series if… Andrei Vasilevskiy stands on his head.
The Avalanche will win the series if… Darcy Kuemper has a solid Final series.
Which players will have the biggest impact in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final?
Adam Gretz, NHL writer: I keep going back to Colorado’s goalie situation. Neither Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz has been particularly good this postseason, and neither one has really needed to be. Colorado has been so much better than every other team it has played that even with below average goaltending they are still 12-2 right now. But that might change here. Not only because Tampa Bay is the best team the Avalanche have played, but because Tampa Bay has a goalie that is going to be capable of shutting down the Avalanche offense. Kuemper and/or Francouz might have to steal a game or two here. If they do not, that could be the difference for the Avalanche (and the Lightning).
Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: J.T. Compher is going to be the X-factor for Colorado if Nazem Kadri is unable to go in the series. Compher can be thrown into any scenario and he has enough offensive skill to play on the second line in Kadri’s absence. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the Lightning’s X-factor. As he has done in the past, Vasilevskiy needs to stand on his head in this series if Tampa Bay is to win. He is definitely capable of doing so but it may be difficult with all the scoring power the Avs possess.
James O’Brien, NHL writer: Brayden Point — consider this a Nazem Kadri entry, too, only I feel more confident in Point appearing in the Stanley Cup Final. During significant chunks of these playoffs, the Lightning won games by tiny margins. If the SCF ends up following a similar trend, having a game-breaker (even a hobbled one) like Point could be absolutely pivotal. Darcy Kuemper (/Pavel Francouz?) — if the Lightning totally clog the Avalanche’s transition machine, and this becomes the hockey equivalent of “half-court basketball,” then the Avalanche will need to lean on their in-zone defense and goaltending. As much as Colorado will want to make this about skaters more than goalies, they need a baseline level of competence or this could end up being an example of the savvy master schooling the rawer pupil.
Sean Leahy, NHL writer: The Avalanche are loaded from top to bottom and will only get stronger if Nazem Kadri returns for the series. But in goal, it’s Darcy Kuemper who will be the biggest factor in their Cup hopes. After getting injured in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, the netminder missed the remainder of the series with an upper-body injury — though he did back up Pavel Francouz in Game 4 against the Oilers.
But we just saw how much Igor Shesterkin gave the Rangers a shot against Andrei Vasilevskiy in the Eastern Conference Final. Kuemper will have to play near that level as the Avalanche can win a high-scoring game, but that would require making Vasilevskiy look like a beer league goalie.
If the Lightning are making a playoff run, Steven Stamkos is helping lead the way. The Tampa Bay captain scored both goals to knock out the Rangers in Game 6 and has nine goals and 15 points in 17 postseason games this spring. He’s a weapon at even strength on the power play and off the ice where it’s clear his leadership his valued inside that dressing room. A healthy, productive Stamkos is good for hockey and good for a team trying to win its third title in a row.