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Game 1 Preview: Stanley Cup Final begins

The Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning begin a much anticipated Stanley Cup Final.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Colorado Avalanche Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Tonight the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning will play Game 1 of the NHL’s 106th Stanley Cup Final in Denver, CO. It’s been a long and winding road for both clubs, but all roads lead to a Stanley Cup champion. Nathan MacKinnon put it best when he said, “It’s best on best,” in this final. Can Colorado dethrone the back-to-back champions, or will Tampa make history yet again?

Colorado Avalanche

Yesterday’s media day was full of excellent quotes from both sides of this marquee matchup, but the one that stood out to me came from young Cale Makar. The Conn Smyth hopeful was on the money stating, “They are a team that’s looking to have a dynasty. We’re trying to start a legacy.”

The Lightning presents a challenge that the Avalanche haven’t seen in any previous playoff series. With that comes a tremendous opportunity for a young flourishing Avalanche core. Nathan MacKinnon mentioned to the media that he’s glad that Colorado is playing Tampa, a sentiment that Avalanche captain Gabe Landeskog echoed: “to be the best, you have to beat the best.”

What will it take for the Avalanche to beat the best? They will have to continue dominating puck possession, remain on the attack, and become the Batman to Vasilevskiy’s riddler. Additionally, if Colorado can get some solid netminding from their keeper Darcy Kuemper, they will have a real shot at hoisting their third Stanley Cup.

Projected Lineup:

Gabriel Landeskog — Nathan MacKinnon — Valeri Nichushkin
Arturri Lehkonen — Mikko Rantanen - Andre Burakovsky
Alex Newhook — JT Compher — Nicolas Aube-Kubel
Nico Sturm — Darren Helm — Logan O’Connor

Devon Toews — Cale Makar
Jack Johnson — Josh Manson
Bowen Byram — Erik Johnson

Note: The Avalanche will likely be without forwards Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano, whom both sustained hand injuries in the conference final against Edmonton. They both underwent surgery and have been listed as day-to-day heading into the series.

Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning’s third straight journey to the Stanley Cup Final has been much different than the previous two. This time, they have been behind in two of their three playoff series and faced elimination in two straight games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the 2019-20 bubble, the Lightning didn’t face elimination once and never trailed in a series. During their 2020-21 campaign, they only faced elimination in the western final against the New York Islanders in the form of a game seven and still never trailed in a series.

Tampa Bay should feel pretty comfortable and confident heading into this final. They have the league’s most prolific playoff performer in the net and have won eleven straight playoff series. Colorado will test them in ways they haven’t yet seen in a final nor this year’s playoffs. Florida had a potent offense, but they played a more hectic style. Toronto has a star-studded lineup but hasn’t been able to respond to adversity. The Rangers have a top-three netminder but lack experience and depth. Colorado has a potent offensive process, a resilient star-studded lineup on top of depth that can match any team in the NHL.

Projected Lineup:

Ondrej Palat — Steven Stamkos — Nikita Kucherov
Brandon Hagel — Anthony Cirelli — Alex Killorn
Ross Colton — Nick Paul — Brayden Point
Patrick Maroon — Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — Corey Perry

Victor Hedman — Jan Rutta
Ryan McDonagh — Erik Cernak
Mikhail Sergachev — Zach Bogosian

Note: According to head coach Jon Cooper, Lightning forward Brayden Point will be a game-time decision. He was with the third line going through a full practice yesterday, so I’d be willing to bet he plays this evening.

Goaltenders

Avalanche GM Joe Sakic and head coach Jared Bednar told media members that starting netminder Darcy Kuemper is “100 percent” heading into this final. If that is indeed the case, expect Darcy to get the start in Game 1. Kuempers performance in this Stanley Cup final could significantly increase his free-agent value in the off-season. Will he seize the opportunity?

Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in the net for the Lightning. Vassy is the league’s most dominant playoff keeper, posting a .925 SV% and 2.24 GAA over a whopping 98 appearances. He has won 61 of those 98 playoff contests. Can the Avalanche be the team that solves him?