Succession, the order in which a person ascends to a title or a throne, sounds like the perfect word to describe this Stanley Cup Final matchup, not just the title of a very popular HBO series.
This is what the hockey world wants to see: the Kings of the Court versus the apparent successors to the throne. It’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, on the verge of dynasty status, versus the Colorado Avalanche, who finally got over the second-round hump and are ready to become the next great powerhouse.
Stanley Cup Final
Colorado Avalanche vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
Key Battlegrounds: Stick-to-itiveness (Identity) vs. Blazing Speed… and solving Andrei Vasilevskiy
Stick-to-itiveness and identity are major strengths of the Lightning. On an individual basis and as a team, they know who they are, they don’t have identity crises and they execute what makes them successful. It’s called discipline. They just don’t panic. Down in two of three series, including trailing 2-0 against the New York Rangers, Tampa just kept at it. We heard Steven Stamkos say, “Defend until the end”, and it was on full display. They never cheated themselves to success throughout the 2022 playoffs.
In terms of their style, they can play fast – fast of mind and puck – physical with purpose, embracing place and chase and playing deep in the offensive zone. Their sixth sense with the puck is unbelievable and, oh, they have an absolute stud in net in Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning’s work in the defensive zone is a very underrated area, which was unreal against the Rangers, denying the slot, keeping them on the perimeter. It’s the Bolts’ drive train and launches their transition. Watch for their ability to close things up as Colorado’s ‘D’ get activated and start to move around, freewheeling and trying to create mismatches. This is where the champs will try to push the Avs out of the prime scoring area, the slot, which accounts for approximately 78 percent of all goals scored.
The Avalanche have earned their way here, no matter what storylines are out there about them not having faced sharp goaltending in the first three rounds. Blazing speed will be on full display once again with Nathan Mackinnon and Cale Makar to leading the way. Highly skilled and high-octane offense is an aspect of Colorado’s identity, which will be measured in this series against the best goalie in the world in Vasilevskiy.
One area I am looking forward to watching is whether the Avalanche can continue their full buy-in on defending. The mitigation of Connor McDavid’s impact in Games 2-4 against Edmonton in the Western Conference final was superb. J.T. Compher, Andrew Cogliano, Darren Helm and the D-corps were tremendous in this endeavor. Defending is a true marker of whether a team understands completely what it takes to lift the Cup. Can the Avs do it for one more round consistently?
Here are some areas that have stuck out to me when reviewing the film and the data.
As the playoffs have gone from round to round, the Lightning have become a solid defensive team, specifically in two areas: the slot and the inner slot. They dominated these two areas at both ends of the ice by a large margin. If they can continue this trend it will make Vasilevskiy’s job a lot easier. Offensively, they keep proving their willingness to be simplistic in their O-zone approach with one forward anchored to the front of the net. At times, when a shot is taken from the point, we can see two forwards in the goalie’s sightline.
Colorado is no slouch, obviously, and I fully expect to see some major flashes of speed and skill in transition. The Avs will have to fully embrace getting into the inner slot for screens, tips and rebounds if they want to really be efficient in the O-zone. However, one element to watch for is how the hulking Vasilevskiy handles shots from bad angles in tight. Colorado has the nifty skills to score from what looks like the impossible angles.
Lastly, something we’ve heard in previous series and we are hearing again going into the Stanley Cup Final: Rust vs Rest. Rest in my opinion only helps injuries. Sure, it helps with a little fuel in the tank as well. Rust, however, can bite you in the backside as there might not be any time to recover.