By Michael Wax
The Tampa Bay Lightning are off t0 their third consecutive Stanley Cup Finals after defeating the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals in six games. In their quest for immortality, they face their biggest challenge to date: The Colorado Avalanche. The best of the west in the regular season stormed their way to their first finals since 1996, dispatching the Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers with sweeps and finishing the St. Louis Blues in six games in between those sweeps. The Avs are filled with a speedy forward core, a responsible and skilled defensive unit, and stable if underperforming goaltending. Here are four questions that will need answering as we head into the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals.
Who starts in goal for Colorado?
As noted in the intro, the Avs biggest weakness heading into the finals might be their goaltending. After facing 2022 Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning will certainly get an easier task heading into this next round. One question they’ll have, however, is who will start for Colorado. Darcy Kuemper was the Avalanche’s big acquisition last offseason, acquiring him in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes. After a slow start, Kuemper ended up with another solid season, posting a .921 save percentage and 21 goals saved above average. The playoffs, however, have been a very different story. After taking an errant high stick to the face from Nashville‘s Ryan Johansen in their round one, game three win, Kuemper sat out the rest of round one and struggled mightily in round two before pulling himself in game one of the third round with vision issues. After he left game one, Kuemper didn’t play for the rest of the series.
Pavel Francouz, Keumper’s backup, did a very decent job in Keumper’s place in rounds one and three. Francouz’s one real stinker can in game four of the third round, where Edmonton was fighting to keep their season alive. Do the Avalanche go with the healthy option in Francouz, or is Darcy Kuemper good enough to play?
How Big is Home-Ice?
The Lightning and Avalanche were two of the best home teams in the league during the 2021-22 regular season, and that has continued into these playoffs. The Lightning are coming into the finals with a 7-1 record, with a goals for average of 3.62 and a goals against of 2.00. Colorado has been just as dominant, going 5-2 while scoring 4.14 goals per game and allowing 2.86 goals per game. Not only will this be a battle of home ice, but also a battle of conditions. With Denver being a mile above sea level, the air is much thinner and may make some of the Lightning players short of breath.
Which Lightning Depth Steps Up?
The 2022 playoffs have shown a different side to Tampa’s game: quality scoring depth. The 2020 and 2021 runs had their odd bottom six goal or defensive assist, but the efforts of Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Brayden Point were the big talking points. This year, the Lightning have made it clear that anyone in the lineup can hurt you. Corey Perry led the Lightning in postseason goals for the first two rounds, Nick Paul turned into a Super Sayan in game seven of the first round, and Pat Maroon has provided scoring numbers not seen since his days in Edmonton. Mikhail Sergachev put together an exceptional series against the Rangers, on both ends of the ice. As crazy as this sounds, the depth still has more to give. The line of Brandon Hagel-Anthony Cirelli-Alex Killorn has yet to bury one of their numerous chances. The aforementioned Perry hasn’t scored since game three against the Panthers. Nick Paul, who has been an absolute beast defensively and on the PK, had only scored one goal since that game seven performance. The depth will have to step up in a big way once again if the Lightning want to win, but the names might change every game.
Is This Ondrej Palat’s Last Dance?
I’ll admit, this is probably more of an off-season question. But, while the Lightning still have him, I’m going to cherish this series. Palat’s been a part of the Lightning’s main roster since 2012-13, scoring his first NHL goal in the same game as Tyler Johnson while wearing the number 74 on his back. Palat’s been there for it all: the triumphs, the heartbreaks, and all the moves that have come with it. He’s the Lightning’s all-time leader in playoff game-winning goals (11) and is the current leader among active players in conference finals goals (16). Palat hasn’t been a slouch in the finals either, putting up five goals and five assists in 17 games across three different finals. If this is indeed Ondrej Palat’s last dance, I hope he goes out in style.
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