The 2022 Stanley Cup Final will be a battle of heavyweights.
On one side is the Tampa Bay Lightning, winners of the past two Cups, aiming to become the first three-peat champion in the NHL since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83.
On the other side is the Colorado Avalanche, who finished with the second-most points in the regular season and are looking to fulfill the promise they’ve shown for years.
The Lightning, who have won 11 consecutive playoff series, figure to be the team to beat. But it’s the Avs who are favored in the Final and come in with home-ice advantage. Game 1 is Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, ABC) at Denver’s Ball Arena.
Of Tampa Bay’s three opponents in the Final — the Dallas Stars in 2020, the Montreal Canadiens in 2021 and now the Avs — Colorado is by far the toughest, at least on paper. But the talented Avs know the Lightning have a significant edge in high-stakes experience.
So, who will hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup? Here are the questions that will shape what happens in the Final.
Will the Avs be affected by rust?
Colorado made quick work of the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final, sweeping them. However, Game 4 was played Monday, June 6, meaning Game 1 of the Cup Final will be the Avs’ first game in nine days.
The Lightning can relate. After sweeping their second-round series with the Florida Panthers, they also had to wait nine days before starting the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers … and promptly dropped the first two games. However, they overcame that deficit quickly, winning the next four to set up their date with the Avs.
How invincible is Andrei Vasilevskiy?
Tampa Bay’s all-world goaltender, last season’s winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy for MVP of the playoffs, is a prime candidate for the award again. The 27-year-old has a .928 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average through 17 playoff games.
However, his true value comes when the Lightning is on the verge of clinching a series. That’s when Vasilevskiy is at his best.
So for the Avs, avoiding falling behind in the series is even more imperative than usual.
Can the Lightning contain Nathan MacKinnon?
The Avs star has been on a mission throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs, producing highlight-reel goals like this one in the conference semis against the St. Louis Blues.
MacKinnon has the most goals of any player remaining in the playoffs, with 11, and figures to draw special attention from the Lightning every time he steps on the ice.
Who will be in goal for Colorado?
Darcy Kuemper was the Avs’ No. 1 goalie throughout the season, but he has twice been knocked out of the lineup due to injury in these playoffs. The second time, in Game 1 against Edmonton, Pavel Francouz took over and manned the crease the rest of the series.
So who will start off facing the Lightning? Kuemper told reporters he was “100 percent” last week, so it stands to reason that he would get the call for Game 1. But Francouz is 6-0 in the playoffs.
From the Lightning’s point of view, both Kuemper and Francouz are capable goalies, but neither are Igor Shesterkin, the Vezina Trophy finalist for the Rangers who Tampa Bay had to work extra-hard to conquer in the previous series.
What’s the status of injured stars on both teams?
Both teams could begin the Final with key players missing from their lineups.
For Tampa Bay, center Brayden Point hasn’t played since suffering a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the team’s first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. However, he has resumed skating in practice, and Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Point is “extremely probable” to return at some point in the series.
Colorado center Nazem Kadri was injured when he was checked from behind into the boards by Edmonton’s Evander Kane in Game 3 of the Western Conference final — a hit that earned Kane a one-game suspension.
Is this the year for Corey Perry?
The veteran winger is playing in his third straight Stanley Cup Final, but the previous two times he was on the losing end. He played for Dallas in 2020 and Montreal in 2021.
Now with the Lightning, he’s looking to finally be on the winning end (Don’t feel too bad for him, though. He already has his name on the Cup, winning it in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks).
Meanwhile, his teammate Patrick Maroon is looking to hoist the Cup for the fourth straight season, having done it twice with Tampa Bay and in 2019 with the Blues.
How much gas does Tampa Bay have in the tank?
The drawback of winning two straight Stanley Cups: That’s a lot of extra hockey. The Lightning have played 17 games this postseason, after playing 22 in 2020 (during the bubble playoffs) and 23 in 2021.
Will it make a difference now that the Lightning are this close to becoming a full-fledged dynasty? Perhaps not, but the wear and tear is something to watch for at this time of year.
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