It seems like it was only yesterday that the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, but time has a habit of continuing to march on despite our desire to live in the glory of the past, and while both teams have still retained their cores from that series, the peripheral players around them have changed quite a bit in just two years.
The Avs have righted the ship a bit after a shaky stretch of play and a crushing last-second loss in the middle of their recent turn-around. After what was quite possibly the worst game the Avalanche have played since the 48-point season against St. Louis on November 11th, the Avs were through a stretch of seven games where they were 2-5 and were outscored 31-15. Avs fans were getting worried as Jared Bednar used words like “quit” to describe his team.
All Colorado has done since is win six out of seven while outscoring their opponents 33-15, quieting the doubters who arose after the disastrous St. Louis game. The third and fourth lines look great, newcomers Ryan Johansen and Jonathan Drouin look more comfortable by the day and are finding the scoresheet more often lately, and the 2023-2024 Avalanche look like they are beginning to establish an identity. This has been a season of wild swings so far, as the Avs won their first six before the 2-5 stretch, so consistency is still something this squad has to establish, and playing the league’s most consistent team over this past decade is a good test to see where they are truly at right now.
Valeri Nichushkin — Nathan MacKinnon — Mikko Rantanen
Jonathan Drouin — Ryan Johansen — Tomas Tatar
Miles Wood — Ross Colton — Logan O’Connor
Andrew Cogliano — Fredrik Olofsson — Joel Kiviranta
Devon Toews — Cale Makar
Bo Byram — Josh Manson
Jack Johnson — Caleb Jones
Tampa Bay Lightning
Tampa Bay has had a similar season to the Avs in that they have been prone to stretches of both good and poor play. They opened the season winning just one of their first four, then won three of their next four, then lost six of their next eight games, followed up by winning four out of their last five, including an impressive 8-2 blowout of Eastern Conference favorite Carolina in their last outing.
Before you go hoping that the Avalanche can send Tampa Bay on a losing streak like they had earlier this year, there was one gigantic factor in their early season struggles: the Lightning were missing the best goalie on the planet. Andrei Vasilevskiy was injured and didn’t make his season debut until Friday against the Hurricanes, while former Avalanche netminder Jonas Johansson started most of the Lightning’s games up to that point.
With Vasilevskiy in net, Tampa is just a different team. They can take more chances and be more aggressive knowing that they have an all-world goalie who can cover for them if they get caught. I’m not sure how instructive it is looking at their season to date minus their best player, and I’m sure that plenty in the Tampa Bay locker room look at this weekend as the true start of their season, with everything preceding it just an exercise in surviving until Vasilevskiy returned. That they scored a season-high in goals against the defensively stout Hurricanes is proof of the emotional boost Vasilevskiy’s return gave the team.
Brandon Hagel – Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Steven Stamkos – Anthony Cirelli – Mikey Eyssimont
Tanner Jeannot – Nick Paul – Tyler Motte
Cole Koepke – Luke Glendening – Austin Watson
Victor Hedman – Nick Perbix
Mikhail Sergachev – Erik Cernak
Calvin de Haan – Darren Raddysh
Alexandar Georgiev is an iron man for the Avalanche, as he has started 17 of 20 games this year, and you can bet your bottom dollar that after getting the night off against Calgary on Saturday night that he will be in net for tonight’s marquee matchup. For Tampa Bay, unless they are trying to ease Vasilevskiy into the season by playing him in every other game until he gets his legs back under him, you would expect them to start the best goalie alive against one of the hotter teams in the NHL right now.