The Tampa Bay Lightning were expected to have an initial edge against an Avalanche team that had not played for nine days in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. Yet it was Colorado who scored the first goal of the series when Gabriel Landeskog scored at the 7:47 minute mark of the first period before Valeri Nichushkin gave the Aves a 2-0 lead less than two minutes later. Nick Paul cut the lead in half for the Lightning just over three minutes later yet Colorado was able to take a 3-1 lead into the first break when Artturi Lehkonen scored a power-play goal at the 17:31 mark of the first period. It appeared that Tampa Bay initially struggled to adjust to the speed of the Avalanche. Playing in the high altitude in Denver likely played a role as well. Yet the two-time defending champions responded in the second period with Ondrej Palat and Mikhail Sergachev both scoring to tie the game at 3-3. The teams played a scoreless third period before Colorado won Game 1 with Andre Burakovsky scoring the game-winner just 83 seconds into overtime. Tampa Bay has struggled throughout the postseason in the opening games of a series. They only won once in their four Game 1s (against Florida) with goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy posting a .884 save percentage in those games.
Tampa Bay completed their Eastern Conference finals series with the Rangers with a 2-1 victory at home on Saturday. The Lightning attempt to become the first NHL team to win three-straight Stanley Cup titles since the New York Islanders won four championships in a row from 1980 to 1983. It has been a difficult road getting back to the finals for the Lightning. They needed seven games to get by a talented Toronto team in the first round of the playoffs before dominating Florida in the second round. After beating New York and perhaps the best goaltender in the world right now in Igor Shesterkin in six games, the Lightning have a 12-5 record in these playoffs.
Forward Brayden Point returned to action in Game 1 after being out since Game 7 of the first-round series against the Maple Leafs. He assisted on a goal and played just under 18 minutes on Wednesday. Point scored 28 goals and added 30 assists during the regular season, and the 14 goals he scored in each of the two previous postseasons is the league’s top mark.
Perhaps the biggest edge the Lightning have in this series is with goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. In winning the last four games against the Rangers, Vasilevksiy only gave up five goals and posted a .955 save percentage. He began this series with a 2.27 goals-against average in his seventeen starts in the playoffs this year with a .928 save percentage. In his career in the playoffs going into Game 1, Vasilevskiy had a 61-34 record with a 2.24 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. He won last season’s Conn Smythe award for being the Most Valuable Player in the postseason. Led by Vasilevskiy, the Lightning will bring the most disciplined and effective style of play on defense that Colorado will have faced in their playoff run this year.
The Colorado Avalanche reached the Stanley Cup finals by completing their second series sweep in the postseason with their 6-5 victory in overtime at Edmonton that eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs on June 6th. The Avalanche opened the postseason with a four-game sweep against Nashville. Colorado is 12-2 in the playoffs with their only two losses coming against St. Louis in the second round of the playoffs. Yet the Aves now face their biggest challenge in these playoffs in playing the Lightning. They take a step up in class which may present a jolt to the system for this Colorado team playing in their first Stanley Cup finals in the Nathan MacKinnon era. Beginning this series after nine days off between games may leave head coach Jerad Bednar’s team rusty, yet they scored three times in the first period. That time off may later help their speed and endurance as this series moves on.
An area of concern for Bednar is the state of his goaltending. Darcy Kuemper had a 2.65 goals-against average and a .895 save percentage in ten playoff games before the beginning of this series. His backup, Pavel Francouz, had six victories in his six games (four starts) in the playoffs with a 2.86 goals-against average and .906 save percentage. Bednar did not announce who his starting goaltender would be to begin the finals before calling on Kuemper to be his starter. He stopped 20 of the 23 shots he saved in Game 1. Colorado is allowing 2.9 goals per game in their fourteen playoff games.
The strength of the Avalanche is their balanced scoring attack. Nathan MacKinnon scored 11 goals and added seven assists in the first three rounds of the playoffs. Gabriel Landeskog added 17 points in those 14 games in the first three rounds. Mikko Rantanen scored four goals and had two assists last round against the Oilers. Defenseman Cale Makar had five goals and another 17 assists in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Tampa Bay has been the best team in the NHL over the last few seasons, yet it has been Colorado that has perhaps been the best team in the regular season over that span. This is the first Stanley Cup finals for the Avalanche corp group of young superstars. Their ambition to win their first Stanley Cup will depend on their ability to play good enough defense to beat elite opposition and how well their goaltending holds up.
Good luck - TDG.