Lightning Face Uphill Battle vs Avalanche in Stanley Cup Final

There is a reason why three-peats are rare in major sports. However, the Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to be the first team since the 1980-83 New York Islanders to win three consecutive Stanley Cup championships. The last team to accomplish this feat in all of major sports was the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-02. If the Lightning are going to achieve what some have called the pinnacle of North American trophies, they may face their biggest obstacle in their three-year run when they face the Colorado Avalanche.

The Avalanche Are on a Roll

After sweeping past the Edmonton Oilers, the Avalanche are now 12-2 in the playoffs – let that sink in for a moment.

That record would be really good against any 14 opponents in the NHL, but to achieve that in the playoffs shows that they are playing at an extremely high level. They are also one of only 14 teams to have two sweeps in the postseason in NHL history; the last team to do so was the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003.

The only downside to sweeping an opponent is similar to what the Lightning experienced in their last series: will rest lead to rust? Head coach Jon Cooper mentioned rust in losing two straight games to the New York Rangers to start the Eastern Conference Final.

Colorado Avalanche Jared Bednar
Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

For now, Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar is stating that the extended layoff will not be an issue. “I’m worried about what we do with our breaks. What we’ve deemed to be successful, and that’s it,” Bednar said. “I don’t know how they handled it or what they did — nor do I care.”

The players are saying that the rest will do them some good. “It’s good to get a little bit of rest,” forward J.T. Compher said of the break. “It’s just keeping your mind in it. You have a little time to relax, but it’s just mentally making sure you’re refreshed and focused on the goal ahead.”

Part of the rest may be to help some of the injured Avalanche, such as Nazem Kadri (thumb) and Andrew Cogliano (hand), who both recently underwent surgery. Neither has been ruled out for the series. Key players such as Gabriel Landeskog, Devon Toews, Josh Manson, and Andre Burakovsky have taken maintenance days to give their bodies a chance to rest. The rest also did not bother the Avalanche in their series against the St. Louis Blues, as they won Game 1 in overtime. However, if the Avalanche enter Game 1 with some rust, the Lightning must take advantage.

Avalanche Offense Has Been Dominant in the Playoffs

In their 14 playoff games, the Avalanche have averaged a league-leading 4.6 goals per game (GPG) and 40.7 shots-on-goal (SOG). Even though they struggled on the power play against the Oilers, they had the NHL’s seventh-best power play in the regular season (24%). Despite their troubles, they dominated at 5-on-5, pumping in 14 even-strength goals and averaging over five goals per game against Edmonton.

All of this starts with the Avalanches’ top player, Nathan MacKinnon, who has 11 goals and 18 points in the postseason. He can dominate a game and even a series on his own. The Lightning will have their hands full trying to make sure that this does not happen.

Nathan MacKinnon Colorado Avalanche
Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Avalanche also have good scoring depth to support MacKinnon. Against Edmonton, 16 of their 20 players contributed at least one point. Leading that depth is Cole Makar, the 23-year-old defenseman who Wayne Gretzky said was the best player on the ice in their most recent series; little wonder that Makar is frequently mentioned in the same sentence as the legendary Bobby Orr.

He leads the Avalanche in the playoffs with 22 points, including 5 in the Game 4 clincher against the Oilers. He not only can create space for himself, but he also does the same for his teammates. Like the Lightning did with the Rangers’ Adam Fox in the conference final, they have to be able to make sure that Makar does not become a difference-maker.

Related: 3 Lightning Who Need to Step Up for the Rest of the Playoffs

The Avs also have Artturi Lehkonen, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog. In addition to his scoring, Lehkonen has Stanley Cup experience, playing in the Final with the Montreal Canadiens last season. He has improved his offensive game while also providing the team will some strong defensive play. He has stepped in for Kadri on the power play quite nicely, especially in Game 4.

Rantanen has also stepped up in Kadri’s absence as the second-line center and has five goals and 12 assists in the playoffs. He finished the regular season as the team’s leading goal and point scorer with 36 goals and 92 points. Landeskog finished the Western Conference Final with two goals, four assists, and a plus-7 rating in four games. Overall, he’s produced eight tallies, nine assists, 42 shots, 49 hits, and a plus-14 rating in 14 playoff games.

This may well be the biggest challenge the Lightning have faced in their three-year Stanley Cup run as they face a well-oiled playoff machine. It will take every bit of their playoff savvy to clear this huge hurdle and take home Lord Stanley’s Cup for a third straight time.

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