Colorado Avalanche vs. Tampa Bay Lightning: Who has the edge, five things to watch and predictions – The Denver Post

Who has the edge?

Forwards

Both teams have two key injured centers but Tampa’s Brayden Point (lower-body injury) will probably play in this series before Colorado’s Nazem Kadri (right thumb). Still, the Avalanche has a relentless top-six attack without Kadri because it can surround Mikko Rantanen with highly capable players on the second line and keep the top line of center Nathan MacKinnon between Gabe Landeskog and Valeri Nichushkin intact. Because of Andre Burakovsky’s maintenance days, Colorado has put J.T. Compher and Artturi Lehkonen with Rantanen. But Burakovsky and/or Alex Newhook can also play there to spread the scoring depth to the third line. Colorado loves its fourth line, despite the loss of Andrew Cogliano to a finger injury, because Nico Sturm slots in well with Darren Helm and Logan O’Connor. Tampa’s top line of Steven Stamkos between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov is unquestionably elite. But Colorado has the better depth scoring. Edge: Avalanche. 

Defensemen

The team with Cale Makar on its side has the advantage, plain and simple. But the Lightning has the best big defenseman in the league with Victor Hedman. He’s a 6-foot-6, 240-pound train with massive experience in the Cup Finals, so that certainly diminishes Makar’s edge. But the Avalanche blue-line has combined to score 14 goals this postseason, compared to just five for the Lightning, and Colorado is the third stingiest team in goals-against-average (2.86). Tampa is second (2.41) but it doesn’t create nearly as much scoring as the Avs’ back end. The Lightning does have the overall size advantage, although Colorado’s “complementary” defensemen Erik Johnson, Josh Manson and Jack Johnson are 225-plus-pound guys who can throw their weight around. Edge: Avalanche.

Goaltending

The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP and he also won the 2019 Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goalie. At age 27, he’s in the prime of his career and he leads all goalies with 12 wins this postseason and is second in save percentage (.927) among goalies who advanced past the first round. He’s the king of the Stanley Cup Finals until he loses one. The Avs’ Darcy Kuemper has played in 10 of 14 games with a .897 save percentage. That number won’t be near good enough to beat the Lightning and Vasilevskiy in a seven-game series. But Kuemper is 2-0 against Tampa Bay with Vasilevskiy in net this season, so there’s that. And the Avalanche has the better backup in Pavel Francouz, who has seen action in six games (four starts) compared to Brian Elliott’s zero minutes this postseason. Edge: Lightning

Special teams

Colorado has the second-best power-play percentage (31.1) in the playoffs and Tampa Bay is a distant eighth (22.6). The Avs’ penalty killing hasn’t been great (75.7%) but they’ve served only 94 penalty minutes — half as much as the Lightning (201). The Bolts are averaging 11:49 penalty minutes a game compared to the Avs’ league-low 6:42. Colorado will undoubtedly try to continue to play highly disciplined and be similarly as dangerous on the power play. Tampa Bay will try to do the same but it hasn’t continuously been able to do that thus far. Edge: Avalanche.

Coaching

Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper is seeking his fourth championship as a professional coach. In addition to leading the Lightning to the Stanley Cup the last two seasons, he also coached the Norfolk Admirals to the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2012. Cooper’s winning ways include three junior-league championships with the NAHL’s St. Louis Bandits (2007 and 2008) and the USHL’s Green Bay Gamblers (2010). Colorado’s Jared Bednar has ECHL and AHL championships on his resume, winning the Kelley Cup and Calder Cup with the South Carolina Stingrays (2009) and Lake Erie Monsters (2016). Both Cooper and Bednar never played in the NHL but are known as players’ coaches. Edge: Even. 

— Mike Chambers

Five things to watch

1. MacKinnon vs. Lightning D

Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon enters the Finals with 18 points in 14 games (his 11 goals are tied for second-most). He has excelled in the first three rounds by using speed to create time and space. The Lightning will counter with two warhorses in veteran blue-liners Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. “100% of the time, (MacKinnon) is going to be on the ice against Hedman or McDonagh,” ESPN NHL analyst Ray Ferraro said. “They’re fantastic defenders and they’re big so they take up space.” How does MacKinnon break through? “You have to be willing to be patient and ground out some ugliness against Tampa because now that their game is order, they make so very few mistakes,” Ferraro said.

2. Testing Vasilevskiy

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy isn’t Connor Ingram (Nashville, Round 1), Ville Husso (St. Louis, Round 2) or Mike Smith (Edmonton, Round 3). Vasilevskiy is better. Much better. “He’s the best goaltender in the world,” TNT analyst Darren Pang said. “What makes him great is he’s powerful and his legs are like tree trunks so he moves side to side incredibly well. It’s hard to beat him on lateral plays and the Avs are maybe the best team in the league on those plays. Big-time goaltender and he can win 1-0. That will be (the Avalanche’s) biggest test because when he gets comfortable, it’s very difficult to beat him.” In the playoffs, Vasilevskiy is 12-5 with a league-best 2.27 goals-against average.

3. 5-on-5 advantage

The Avalanche’s 46 goals during 5-on-5 play are second in the playoffs behind Edmonton (47). But the terrific Lightning system will be by far Colorado’s stiffest test in even-strength situations. The Lightning have allowed only 24 goals during 5-on-5 play in 17 games. In Games 4-6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Rangers managed just a single goal. How does Colorado break through? Finding MacKinnon in full flight will start the attack. “If he’s at full speed, he’s going to get the zone,” Ferraro said. With speed comes penalties. The Avalanche’s 31.1% power play rate is second-best in the playoffs. The Lightning’s penalty kill is at 82.5%, including a sparking 90.9% on the road.

4. Unsung standouts

Sixteen Avalanche players have scored in the playoffs, including nine with at least five goals. We know MacKinnon, Makar, Gabe Landeskog and Devon Toews will play their games. But who else is ready to emerge? Center J.T. Compher is expected to get second-line duty because of Nazem Kadri’s injury and Compher has five goals in his last five games. Winger Artturi Lehkonen had six points in the Edmonton sweep. And defenseman Bo Byram’s ice time has increased from 14-15 minutes against Nashville to 19-21 minutes against Edmonton and he has shown an ability to create offense. Look out for Lehkonen, who has been a force over the last two rounds.

5. Handling the stage

This is old hat for Tampa Bay, which is playing in its third consecutive Finals and is going for the three-peat championship. Not for the Avalanche, though. Combined with a nine-day layoff and the stage, the Avalanche winning Game 1 will be critical so it isn’t in chase-the-series mode from the hop. “What if you come out in the first game and are rusty?” Ferraro said. “Tampa Bay’s first game of the (Rangers) series was awful. (The Avs) will be a bundle of nerves and everybody will try and get a hit on their first shift and expend a bunch of energy. If Colorado can get through the first 10 minutes, than their game can settle in.”

— Ryan O’Halloran

Staff predictions

Mike Chambers, Avalanche beat reporter: If Colorado can continue to play highly disciplined and stay out of the penalty box it can win this series at even-strength. And if the Avs can do that and continue to convert on what has been a 31% power play it probably won’t go six or seven games. Tampa Bay has the world’s best goalie but Colorado has the world’s best two-way defenseman and probably the best top-line center in the series. Avalanche in six.

Mark Kiszla, sports columnist: For the first time since 2001, the Stanley Cup is within the Avalanche’s reach. Now comes the hard part: Wrestling that big, gorgeous trophy away from the Lightning. Tampa Bay has been there, done that and plays a style designed to frustrate Nathan MacKinnon. Oh, and there’s this dude Andrei Vasilevskiy, which rhymes with whatever is the Russian word for beauty of a save, eh? My head says Lightning, my heart says: Avalanche in seven.

Sean Keeler, sports columnist: The Avs have the pixie dust. The Lightning have the street cred. Andre Bleepin’ Vasilevskiy. Take him out of the equation, and Colorado wins in five. Jared Bednar’s Big Burgundy-n-Blue Machine has found itself down by two goals or more just five times over the last six weeks. Could Vasilevskiy make those kind of leads stand up, the way the Preds, Blues and Oilers goalies couldn’t? In a battle of magic vs. logic, I wanna be wrong, but … Lightning in seven.

Ryan O’Halloran, staff reporter: Well, I was literally 100% wrong in the last round, picking the Oilers in seven. Consider my lesson learned. Tampa Bay has an elite coach (Jon Cooper) and goalie (Andrei Vasilevskiy) and may get center Brayden Point back from injury at some point. But the Avalanche will ride the two best players in the series — center Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar — to win Game 5 at home and hoist the Cup in Tampa. Avalanche in six.

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