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What to know for the best Stanley Cup final matchup in years

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The matchup pretty much sells itself. A team trying for the first Stanley Cup three-peat in 40 years takes on arguably the most exciting squad in hockey. Here’s a quick primer for the heavyweight tilt between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche, which opens Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Denver and can be watched live on the CBC TV network, CBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports app:

This is, by far, Tampa Bay’s toughest final opponent yet.

All due respect to Dallas and Montreal, who fought hard to reach the 2020 and ’21 finals, but those teams caught lightning (if not the Lightning) in a bottle. Both missed the playoffs the following year, and the Canadiens were the worst team in the league this season. Colorado is a legitimate powerhouse that posted the second-best record in the NHL this season after winning the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago. The relentless Avalanche were among the highest-scoring teams in the regular season and are averaging a playoff-high 4.64 goals per game after blowing through an underwhelming set of opponents. They swept both Nashville (in the first round) and Edmonton (in the Western Conference final), with a six-game victory over St. Louis sandwiched in between.
The Lightning traveled a harder road. They were a shot away from elimination in overtime of Game 6 vs. Toronto before surviving that scrape and a one-goal Game 7. The Lightning then swept Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida before rallying from down two games to none to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final to win four in a row and advance to their third straight championship series. If they prevail here, the Bolts will become the first team since the early-’80s Islanders to win three Cups in a row.

The betting markets believe the more dominant-looking Avs will end the Lightning dynasty (if we can call it that yet). Based on the series odds, Colorado has about a 60 per cent chance of winning its first Cup since 2001, when current GM Joe Sakic led the Avs to their second championship.

There are great players on both sides.

Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov are two of the very best forwards in the sport, and both are producing like the superstars they are in these playoffs. MacKinnon has scored 11 goals in 14 games, while Kucherov has 23 points in 17 contests. A less-heralded key for the Avalanche could be Mikko Rantanen, who scored 36 times in the regular season but was slumping in the playoffs before busting out for a goal in each of the four games vs. Edmonton.

There’s also a marquee matchup on the blue-line between Tampa veteran Victor Hedman, who won the Norris Trophy in 2018 and the Conn Smythe in ’20, and Colorado’s Cale Makar, the electrifying youngster who seems destined to become the game’s next great defenceman (if he isn’t already). Makar, 23, is the betting favourite to win the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP after racking up 22 points in 14 games over the first three rounds. But he’s about to meet perhaps the world’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, the 2021 Conn Smythe and 2019 Vezina winner who sports a sparkling .928 save percentage in this year’s playoffs and has come up with numerous clutch stops.

Also, we’re in the midst of a Stamkosaissance. Oft-injured 32-year-old Lightning captain Steven Stamkos turned back the clock to lead Tampa with 42 goals this season before adding a team-high nine in the playoffs.

Both teams hope to get an injured star back.

Tampa Bay forward Brayden Point missed the previous two rounds with a lower-body injury suffered in Game 7 vs. Toronto. It’s “extremely probable” he returns at some point in this series, according to coach Jon Cooper, and Point was a full participant in Monday’s practice. But his status for Game 1 was still up in the air at our publish time.

Colorado’s Nazem Kadri is also hoping to return after being sidelined by Evander Kane’s hit from behind in Game 3 of the Western Conference final. Kadri had surgery for a thumb injury, so it seems like he’s farther away from a comeback than Point, but he’s back skating with the team. At our publish time, Kadri hadn’t been ruled out for Game 1 of the final.

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