In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we turn our attention to the 2022 Stanley Cup Final between the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning.
As far as matchups go, this is as good as you can get in the league today.
On one side we have an Avalanche team that has been on the rise for the past four years and has been one of the league’s best teams this season. They were finally able to break through the Second Round ceiling and have cruised into the Cup Final with a 12-2 record in their first three series, losing only a single game in regulation.
On the other side we have a Lightning team that is playing in its third consecutive Cup Final (and fourth in the past eight years) and trying to become the first back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cup champion since the early 1980s New York Islanders.
Here we are going to take a look at 10 potential X-factors that could help swing the series. The X-factors could be individual players, entire positions, injuies, specific situations, and everything in between.
What all makes the cut?
To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!
1. Colorado’s goaltending. In what is mostly an evenly matched series this is the one area on paper where Tampa Bay looks to have a substantial advantage. Andrei Vasilevskiy is already one of the NHL’s all-time greats at the position and is money in big games. The Avalanche, meanwhile, have a pretty unsettled situation. Darcy Kuemper has been injured twice this postseason and missed most of the Western Conference Final. When healthy, he has not been great (and the Avalanche have not needed him to be). Pavel Francouz has been solid in relief, but again, has not really needed to be a game-changer. Do the Avalanche go back to Kuemper as soon as he is ready? Do they stick with Francouz after his strong Western Conference Final showing? And can either one of them match Vasilevsky at the other end of the ice?
2. Brayden Point‘s health. Point has not played since suffering an awkward lower-body injury in Game 7 against Toronto in the First Round. All throughout the Eastern Conference Final we kept hearing about how he is getting closer and when he might be able to return, but he has not yet returned. Whenever you hear about a player in the playoffs being close and never actually returning it is sometimes a good bet that they will not return. But if Point is back that would be another impact player in the Lightning lineup. They are 8-2 in the playoffs without him, but he makes them that much better.
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]
3. Tampa Bay’s ability to keep finding the extra gear. At different times this postseason the Lightning were looking like all of the extended playoff runs were catching up to them. They were down 3-2 to Toronto. They were down 2-0 to New York. Just when it looked like teams had them down, the Lightning found that extra gear that has made them a champion and came back to win. This core has played a lot of hockey over the past eight years, and especially the past three years, and you have to think at some point that will catch up to them. It has not yet. Will it against a Colorado team that has been sitting around resting for more than a week?
4. Cale Makar vs. Tampa Bay’s top line. You have to assume this matchup will get used a lot. Makar is one of the league’s best all-around defenseman and a true superstar. The Lightning have found something by uniting Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, and Ondrej Palat together. That line helped them change the series against New York and there is no real reason to break it up right now.
5. Victor Hedman vs. Colorado’s top line. Then there is the opposite side where Tampa Bay’s superstar defenseman, Hedman, will probably an awful lot of Nathan MacKinnon. Hedman is still a dominant presence and even though he does not always look the way he has in the past, his on-ice numbers are still pretty strong. Hedman and Erik Cernak have been Tampa Bay’s most-used defense pairing in the playoffs, getting a significant number of defensive zone starts.
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6. Alex Killorn and Anthony Cirelli. Now we get into the secondary players, and this is a big one for the Lightning. One of the advantages Tampa Bay has had in recent years is their depth and ability to roll four lines at times that can score. Killorn and Cirelli have been a significant part of that. This postseason, though, Tampa Bay’s offense has been a little more top-heavy with Stamkos, Kucherov, and Palat doing most of the damage. Entering the Stanley Cup Final Killorn and Cirelli have combined for just one goal in the 17 games on 67 shots on goal. It does not necessarily mean they are playing poorly (Cirelli is still a dominant two-way and defensive presence) but you have to think some secondary scoring will be needed at some point, and especially against a team like Colorado. These two are due. Will one, or both, have an offensive breakout at some point in the Cup Final?
7. Nazem Kadri‘s availability. Kadri had a career year for the Avalanche and had been having an outstanding playoff run until he got injured on that Evander Kane hit in the Western Conference Final. There is still a chance he could still play at some point in the final, but nobody knows when or if that will actually happen. If he can play that is a huge addition for Colorado’s lineup given Kadri’s two-way ability. He can be an impact player offensively and is an outstanding two-way forward.
[Related: Blizzard of brilliance: How the Avalanche were built]
8. Bowen Byram. Colorado’s defense is absolutely loaded with star power with Makar, Devon Toews, and Samuel Girard leading the way. But with Girard sidelined for the remainder of the postseason it has given Byram an increased role and a chance to shine. He has played very well so far. He is also another rising star on an already loaded defense and is going to be a part of that foundation with the aforementioned trio for the foreseeable future. Since Girard went out of the lineup Byram has been playing more than 20 minutes per game and has six assists.
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9. Colorado’s scoring depth. This becomes an even bigger X-factor if Kadri can eventually return. Both teams have outstanding top lines and superstar talent, but Colorado’s depth has been a little more productive this postseason with players like Valeri Nichushkin and Artturi Lehkonen really shining. Sometimes in a playoff series the stars can cancel each other out and it all comes down to which teams third and fourth lines can provide a game-changing difference.
10. Special teams. Both teams have been dominant during 5-on-5 play. Both teams have superstars at every position. And they both have excellent power plays. If Colorado has a weakness, though, it might be on its penalty kill, and part of that comes down to the goalie situation not being ideal right now. That could be an area the Lightning are able to exploit.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.