By Cole Parkinson
Westwind Weekly News
It’s finally that time of the NHL season when the two remaining teams battle for the Stanley Cup.
Once again, the Tampa Bay Lightning are the remaining east team and are looking for their third straight Stanley Cup and they’re hoping to be the first team to achieve that feat since the New York Islanders from 1980-83. But from the west, the Colorado Avalanche are hoping to put Tampa’s streak to a stop and win their first Cup since 2001. It’s definitely going to be an interesting series with tons of things to watch for on both sides.
While Colorado swept away Edmonton in the Western Conference Final, the New York Rangers were a bit more of a handful for Tampa as they pushed the series to six games. So while Colorado will have a bit more of a breather before the final round begins, I really don’t see it as a benefit or detraction due to the fact both teams got several days off after the Conference Finals.
Colorado has looked like a wagon all playoffs long, but their toughest test is next with the Lightning. Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goalie they have faced in this playoffs and he’s been stellar since Game 6 of Round 1. In 17 games, he has a 2.27 goals-against average, a .928 save percentage, and he’s had a shutout as well. While Toronto got to him in the first five games of the opening round, he locked down in Games 6 and 7 of that round, and continued to show he’s one of the best goalies in the league. He posted .971, 9.72, .971, and 1.000 save percentages in the sweep against Florida. And while he struggled a bit in the first two games against New York with .824 and .893 save percentages in Games 1 and 2, he was above .930 in the next four straight. If there’s a boogeyman in the playoffs for teams, it has to be Vasilevskiy.
For the Avs, the goaltending situation is about to be a question as Darcy Kuemper is set to be available come Game 1 on Wednesday night. Pavel Francouz, who won Games 2, 3, and 4 against Edmonton, was really good to finish that series. And throughout the playoffs, he’s 6-0 with a 2.86 GAA and .906 save percentage — Kuemper on the other hand is 6-2 with a 2.65 GAA and .897 save percentage. Head coach Jared Bednar has yet to reveal who will start. I don’t think anybody on Earth would give the edge to the Avs goaltending in this series, and Colorado has to hope they can get to Vasilevskiy often and early because if not, he’s capable of stealing this series and the Stanley Cup.
The good news for the Avs is the fact they did have success against Tampa in the regular season where they won both games. And sure, wins in the regular season don’t mean much, but it at least shows you can beat this seemingly unkillable monster. Colorado’s offence led by Nathan MacKinnon has been very good throughout this run and their team is incredibly deep behind their star forward. Cale Makar continues to prove he’s one of the, if not the best defenceman in the league as he leads Colorado with 22 points (five goals and 17 points). Nazem Kadri, Gabriel Landeskog, and Mikko Rantanen will also be leaned on heavily for the forwards. And while Makar has been stellar on the back end, Devon Toews, Josh Manson, and Bowen Byram will have to play large parts to get the Avs over the hump.
Looking at Tampa, what else can be said about this team? Everyone knows that Nikita Kucherov is a monster during playoffs, Steven Stamkos continues to prove he’s just as good as he was when he was scoring 60, and while talk has been about Makar and his play, I think Victor Hedman would like a word about who the best defenceman in the league is. The fact Brayden Point is still out is a benefit for Colorado, but Tampa hasn’t slowed down one bit with the injury to one of their best players. Tampa’s lineup is so deep an injury to their top centreman has hardly been noticed as Ondrej Palat, Brandon Hagel, Anthony Cirelli, Ross Colton, and Nick Paul have all carried their fair share of the load. And their defence is even deeper with Ryan McDonagh, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev. This is basically a super team and they’ve proven that over the last two years and if they win their third, they’ll be remembered as one of the best teams of all time.
I’m really struggling to see how Tampa loses this series with this roster, but if there is a team that can do it from the west, I think the Avs are that team. Their goaltending leaves a lot to be desired so far, but you know the entire Colorado roster understands how tough beating Tampa Bay is. But Tampa feels like a team that can’t be killed and once they get this close, it’s hard to imagine them stumbling. That being said, I’d love to see a team dethrone Tampa and I’ll take Colorado in six.