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Stanley Cup Final Preview: The Lightning’s legendary forwards

A top line that has dominated for nearly a decade, a checking line with a growing legend, and more.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The moment we’ve waited all season for arrives tomorrow night, as for the first time in over 20 years, Colorado will play host to the Stanley Cup Finals. The Colorado Avalanche were the preseason betting favorites to win the title, while the Tampa Bay Lightning was the next likeliest team to win the Cup according to the oddsmakers in the desert. The last time the Stanley Cup Finals featured the two preseason betting favorites was 2009, when the sun finally set on the Detroit Red Wings dynasty and they passed the torch to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Avalanche are surely hoping that this dynamic will repeat in 2022.

It won’t be easy. Tampa Bay is the modern NHL dynasty for a reason, as they are the league’s model for how to play a suffocating 200-foot game. For all the fear that their offense puts into their opponents, it’s the Lightning’s team defense that buries them into the ground.

Here’s how Tampa Bay lines up.

Projected Forwards

Ondrej Palat — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov

Brandon Hagel — Anthony Cirelli — Alex Killorn

Nicholas Paul — Ross Colton* — Corey Perry

Pat Maroon — Pierre-Édouard Bellemare — Riley Nash

A True Top Line

Nikita Kucherov is a superstar who might be the league’s most dangerous power-play weapon, and he will be the focal point of the Avalanche defensive scheme. Steven Stamkos is not the league-leading goal scorer that he was in his youth after Tampa Bay invested the number one overall pick on him over a decade ago, but he is still one of the NHL’s most dangerous two-way players, and he put up a monstrous season with 42 goals and 64 assists this year. Ondrej Palat is a defensive stalwart with plenty of offensive creativity who has scored some big goals this postseason, and he rounds out a group that can credibly claim to be the league’s best two-way line.

The Shutdown Line

The Lightning’s scariest line might not be the one Avalanche fans are most concerned about. Brandon Hagel, Anthony Cirelli, and Alex Killorn have just been bodying opponents this postseason. Remember how helpless the New York Rangers offense looked at 5-on-5 in the Eastern Conference Final? A lot of that was these guys’ doing. They will form the lynchpin of coach Jon Cooper’s defensive strategy, as whatever Avalanche line (or lines) he targets them against will dictate how the rest of his defensive matchups unfold. This is not a group to be trifled with, lest they grind you into dust.

A Third Line Filled with Goal-Scorers

Corey Perry is far closer to the end of his All-Star career than the start of it, but he can still put the puck in the back of the net if you give him the opportunity, as his 12.4% shooting percentage this season is right in line with his career average of 13%. Goals from guys like him can swing a series, and the Avalanche bottom six cannot lose track of him. Ross Colton is another bottom-six stalwart who can seriously score, as he found the back of the net 22 times this season, while Nicholas Paul has played this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs role of “relative unknown picked up for cheap at the deadline who scores absolutely massive goals.” Tampa Bay acquired him from Ottawa and not too long afterward Paul sparked the Lightning’s run to the Finals by scoring two goals in a Game 7 in Toronto to (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) eliminate the Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs.

An Old Friend

Matt Duchene. Ryan O’Reilly. Tyson Barrie. Piere-Édouard Bellemare. Every single stop on this road to the Stanley Cup has brought a familiar face to town, and last year’s Avalanche fourth line center is this year’s Lightning fourth line center doing all the little important things Avs fans became accustomed to watching him do last season. The tough, smart, hard-nosed veteran centers a couple of experienced grind line guys who are very difficult to play against in Pat Maroon and Riley Nash.

However, this and at least one other line is in flux because…

The Asterisk

Brayden Point, perhaps Tampa Bay’s best forward (non-Kucherov edition), is injured but Lightning coach Jon Cooper said it is “extremely probable” that he will play in the Stanley Cup Finals. Joe Smith, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat reporter for The Athletic reported that Point was centering the third line between Nick Paul and Ross Colton in practice yesterday, which would presumably kick Corey Perry down to the fourth line with Bellemare and one of Pat Maroon and Riley Nash. How many games Point plays will be one of the most important factors in the outcome of this series. This guy is really, really good.

Who Has the Advantage?

The Avalanche top line has a higher offensive upside, but Tampa Bay’s is better from end-to-end. The order of the Lightning’s second and third lines will likely be determined by Brayden Point’s arrival, and the Cirelli shutdown line seems like a perfect fit to try to bottle up Mikko Rantanen and the Avalanche’s 2nd line no matter how Jon Cooper tries to build a lineup around his returning star.

Comparing both teams’ Corsi at 5-on-5 this year reveals why the Avalanche have been installed as the betting favorites for this series. Puck possession is the name of the game in the modern NHL and the Avalanche are better at it than anyone, including the defending champions.

Natural Stat Trick
Natural Stat Trick

This slight advantage for the Avalanche has extended into the season’s final months, as Tampa Bay is at 50.33% Corsi For at 5-on-5 versus 52.86% for the Avs during their respective runs to the Stanley Cup Finals. These are the kinds of edges Colorado has been exploiting all year against the NHL’s best, including in two victories over the Lightning in the regular season.

If the bottom six is going to determine this series, then the Avalanche could have an advantage. Brayden Point will be a huge addition back into the Tampa lineup whenever he returns, but even with him centering their “third” line or pushing the Cirelli group back into the traditional checking role, the Avalanche have a slight edge in third and fourth lines if Kadri can come back and look anything like his usual self.

J.T. Compher is a streaky goal-scorer getting hot at the right time, Andre Burakovsky and Alex Newhook have higher-end offensive talent than their third line counterparts in Tampa Bay, and ever since the fourth line of Darren Helm, Andrew Cogliano, and Logan O’Connor was formed in the St. Louis series, it’s been truck-sticking opposing fourth lines into the sun. Like most advantages for the Avalanche in these Finals, it’s not a big one, but an edge nonetheless.

Cogliano is another issue given his recovery from a similarly debilitating injury as Kadri, and it wouldn’t be out of line to suggest that this series hinges on which team is healthier. That said, even with the injury report smiling on Tampa Bay at this point, the Avalanche are healthy favorites around -180 by most sportsbooks for a reason (meaning that you have to bet $180 to win $100 on the Avs, whereas you can bet $100 on the Lightning to win around $150).

The Avalanche simply has superior depth and more high-end offensive talent than every team in the league. This will be Colorado’s toughest test yet by far, but it’s one they’re fully equipped to pass.