Two of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy.
Key players who could return from injury.
Coaches trying to make history.
There are storylines aplenty for the Stanley Cup Final, which begins Wednesday with Game 1 of the best-of-7 series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena (8 pm ET; ESPN+, ABC, CBC, SN, TVAS) .
Here are seven for what could be an epic series:
Lightning going for three-peat
The Lightning are four wins from winning the Stanley Cup for a third straight season, something that has happened five times in NHL history and not since the early 1980s.
The New York Islanders were the last team to do it, winning four straight titles from 1980-83.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won the Cup three straight times from 1947-49. The Montreal Canadiens did it an NHL-record five times in a row from 1956-60. The Maple Leafs got the three-peat again from 1962-64. The Canadians won four straight championships from 1976-79.
Since the Islanders dynasty, the Edmonton Oilers (1984, ’85; 1987, ’88), Pittsburgh Penguins (1991, ’92; 2016, ’17), Detroit Red Wings (1997, ’98) and Lightning are the only teams to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
The Oilers lost to the Islanders in the 1983 Cup Final before winning the Cup the next two seasons. The Lightning are the first team since then to reach the Cup Final in three straight seasons.
Rest vs. rust again
Game 1 will be Colorado’s first game since June 6, when it defeated Edmonton in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final.
That’s eight days without a game, whereas Tampa Bay will have had three days between games, having defeated the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Saturday.
But it’s not new for the Avalanche. They went seven days between games after finishing a sweep of the Nashville Predators in the first round May 9 and playing Game 1 of the second round against the St. Louis Blues on May 17.
Colorado won Game 1 against St. Louis 3-2 in overtime, outshooting the Blues 54-25.
The Lightning, though, are a cautionary tale when it comes to rest versus rust.
They had eight days off after defeating the Florida Panthers in Game 4 of the second round on May 23. They lost Game 1 of the conference final to the Rangers 6-2 on June 1 but won the series in six games.
Makar vs. Hedman
What is arguably the marquee matchup of the Stanley Cup Final features two of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, which goes to the defenseman voted the best in the NHL in the regular season.
Hold Makar of the Avalanche is a finalist for the second time. Victor Hedman of the Lightning, the standard-bearer for NHL defensemen for more than half a decade, is a Norris finalist for the sixth straight season, having won it in 2018.
Makar has been Colorado’s top scorer and best player in the playoffs with 22 points (five goals, 17 assists) in 14 games. With an average of 1.57 points per game, he ranks third behind Oilers forwards Connor McDavid (2.06) and Leon Draisaitl (2.00) among players whose teams advanced out of the first round.
Makar is also averaging 27:05 of ice time per game, tops among defensemen whose teams made it out of the first round.
Hedman has been quieter offensively, though still near a point per game (0.82), and a leader of the Lightning’s stout defense.
He has 14 points (two goals, 12 assists) in 17 games and is averaging 24:30 of ice time per game. The Lightning allowed five goals in the last four games against the Rangers and three in their sweep of the Panthers.
The Lightning have the advantage in goal with Andrei Vasilevskiy known as the best in the world at the position.
Vasilevskiy has been the only goalie to play for the Lightning during their 11 consecutive series wins. He is 46-19 with a 1.99 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and seven shutouts in the playoffs since the start of the 2020 postseason, including 12-5 with a 2.27 GAA, .928 save percentage and one shutout this season.
Colorado will try to match Vasilevskiy with either Darcy Kuemper gold Pavel Francouz, or a combination of the two. It’s a daunting challenge when viewed simply as a head-to-head goalie battle, but that is not what this series will be about.
The Avalanche are the top scoring team in the playoffs, averaging 4.64 goals per game. They will try to use their speed and skill to push the Lightning back on their heels and open holes through the middle of the ice. That’s how they will make Vasilevskiy vulnerable.
They’ll do it with the confidence that Kuemper and/or Francouz can make a difference on the other end. They will have to be.
Kuemper started 10 of Colorado’s first 11 playoff games before sustaining a lower-body injury in the second period of Game 1 against the Oilers, when the Avalanche were leading 6-3. He is 6-2 with a 2.65 GAA and .897 save percentage.
Francouz replaced Kuemper in Game 1 and started the next three games, all wins. He is 6-0 with a 2.86 GAA, .906 save percentage and one shutout.
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Pointing in the right direction
Brayden Point could return to the Lightning’s lineup as soon as Game 1. The center has missed 10 games with a lower-body injury sustained in Game 7 of the first round against the Maple Leafs.
The Lightning are 8-2 without Point, a remarkable achievement considering he led the NHL with 14 goals in each of the past two postseasons and is arguably their best center. If he returns healthy, Tampa Bay’s forward depth and power play become immeasurably better.
The Avalanche are hoping to have forwards Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano in the lineup after each had hand surgery. Kadri was injured in Game 3 against the Oilers and missed Game 4; Cogliano left with an injury in the third period of Game 4.
Lightning forwards Anthony Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel were put together on a line midway through the second period of Game 2 in the conference final after the Rangers had already scored seven goals at 5-on-5.
That line did not allow a 5-on-5 goal for the next 4 1/2 games.
Provided coach Jon Cooper keeps that line together for the start of the Cup Final, its next challenge will likely be to shut down the Avalanche’s top line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Valery Nichushkin.
It’s possible, if not likely, that Colorado will do its best to get away from that matchup in Games 1 and 2, when it will have the last change at home, but Tampa Bay should still get it at times, and almost as often as it wants when the series shifts to Amalie Arena for Games 3 and 4.
MacKinnon has 18 points (11 goals, seven assists) in 14 games in these playoffs. In 64 career playoff games, he has 87 points (39 goals, 48 points), fourth most among active NHL players who have never won the Stanley Cup, behind Joe Thornton of the Florida Panthers (134), Joe Pavelsky of the Dallas Stars (125) and Logan Couture of the San Jose Sharks (101).
Landeskog has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists), and Nichushkin has nine points (five goals, four assists), each in 14 games.
Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper
The coaching matchup in the Cup Final is intriguing because there is some history at stake for both Cooper and Colorado’s Jared Bednar.
Cooper is trying to become the sixth coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive times with the same team, joining Al Arbor (Islanders, 1980-83), Scotty Bowman (Canadians, 1976-79), Punch Imlach (Maple Leafs, 1962-64), Toe Blake (Canadians, 1956-60) and Hap Day (Maple Leafs, 1947-49).
Bednar is attempting to become the first coach to win the Stanley Cup as well as the Calder Cup (American Hockey League championship) and Kelly Cup (ECHL championship).
Bednar won the Calder Cup in 2016 with Lake Erie, then the AHL affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He won the Kelly Cup in 2009 with South Carolina.
Cooper also won the Calder Cup with Norfolk in 2012. He never coached in the ECHL but won two championships at the junior level: the Clark Cup (United States Hockey League) with Green Bay in 2010, and the Robertson Cup (North American Hockey League ) in 2007 and ’08 with St. Louis.