TAMPA BAY -- The Tampa Bay Lightning have eliminated the New York Rangers and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight season, with the Colorado Avalanche rested and ready for Game 1 (Wednesday, 8 ET, ESPN).
Here are five things we learned about the Lightning so far in their 2022 postseason journey and what they mean for the final showdown.
The three-peat is in reach
The NHL hasn't had a team three-peat as Stanley Cup champion since 1983, when the New York Islanders finished off their dynasty. Since then, six other teams won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Five of them failed to advance past the second round until the Lightning won the East this season.
"You don't get these chances often. They don't come around. It's like we've seen the top of the mountain. Let's keep going for more," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
It's a classic matchup for the Stanley Cup: The Colorado Avalanche, trying to finally break through to win their first Cup since 2001 after a few years as a top contender; and the Lightning, now just four wins away from an unprecedented achievement in the NHL's salary-cap era, which started in 2005.
"To get there the first time was a dream come true. To get there a second time, the next year, was a dream too. There was no way we were going back. To go a third time is unbelievable," Cooper said. "To watch their growth, watch the pain ... I'm utterly impressed by what they do to win a hockey game. Nobody would fault them for saying 'hey, we won one or two.' But to go for a third? I'm damn impressed."
To win a third straight Cup, the Lightning will have to defeat what Stamkos believe is the best team in the NHL.
"Colorado? Probably the best team in the league," Stamkos said. "As you progress through the playoffs, each round gets tougher and each opponent gets tougher. There's a reason why there's two teams left, and it's because they're the two best teams. We're going to have our hands full."
(Mostly) old faces, same success
The Avalanche are facing a Lightning team whose core is essentially the same as the teams that won back-to-back Cups.
Tampa Bay is powered by stars:
Center Steven Stamkos, the team captain with 481 career goals
Winger Nikita Kucherov, a former league MVP and the playoffs' leading scorer
Center Brayden Point, who missed nearly two rounds to injury but has scored more playoff goals than any other player in the past three postseasons
Defenseman Victor Hedman, nominated for six straight seasons for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman, and playoff MVP in 2020
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a steady veteran
Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, the playoff MVP in 2021
They're supported by a returning cast of characters that include winger Ondrej Palat, who scored two overtime-preventing, winning goals against the Rangers; rugged forwards Alex Killorn and Pat Maroon, who is attempting to play on his fourth straight Cup winner; ace defensive center Anthony Cirelli, who shut down the Rangers' top line; and the smooth-skating defense of Mikhail Sergachev.
One of the most impressive things about this run? That the Lightning lost their entire checking line and some key role players from the past two Cup wins; replaced them with veteran offseason pickups (Corey Perry, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) and trade-deadline acquisitions (Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul); and haven't missed a beat.
"We were looking for a fit," GM Julien BriseBois said. "We're looking for guys that have pride and that have ambition. The pride is what's going to drive you to keep pushing yourself when things aren't going well for you. The ambition is going to fuel your continued success. You're still hungry for more."
Kucherov is elite
The Avalanche and Lightning both have elite skaters who can take over games. Kucherov is chief among them. Kucherov has 23 points in 17 games, distributed rather equally between 5-on-5 and the power play. No NHL player has scored more points than Kucherov over the past three postseasons. While his goal-scoring prowess is elite, it's his playmaking ability and puck distribution that enables him to rack up the points.
Look no further than the conference finals. His perfect touch pass to Ondrej Palat set up the game-winning goal in Game 3, with the entire arena thinking overtime. In Game 6, his pass to Stamkos as the captain streaked to the net set up the game-winning and series-clinching goal.
He's a pace-setter for the Lightning. When he's confident and rolling offensively, they take notice. "You can hear the chatter on the bench when he's coming off [the ice]. The guys knowing that your best player is 'on' in a huge game," Stamkos said.
If the Lightning win a third straight Stanley Cup, it could be Kucherov's turn to hoist the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Can the Avs beat Vasilevskiy?
Colorado caught some goaltending breaks this postseason. The Nashville Predators didn't have injured starter Juuse Saros. The St. Louis Blues lost a resurgent Jordan Binnington to injury in Game 3. And Edmonton Oilers goalie Mike Smith was ... well, Mike Smith.
Opposing goaltenders have a combined save percentage of .886 against the Avalanche this postseason. But barring something unforeseen, the Avalanche will face their toughest net-minding competition in the Stanley Cup Final -- and the player many consider to be the best goalie in the world.
The postseason didn't start off great for Vasilevskiy, as he gave up 22 goals in seven games to the high-octane Toronto Maple Leafs. But he was great when it mattered most, stopping 30 of 31 shots in Game 7. Outside of a hiccup in Game 1 against the Rangers, after a nine-day layoff, Vasilevskiy has been absolutely dominant. As coach Jon Cooper said, he got "his mojo back" as the playoffs went on.
In Vasilevskiy, the Avalanche face one of the greatest postseason goalies in NHL history. It's not just how good he is, but it's when he's at his best: In 23 previous series-clinching games, Vasilevskiy had a 1.65 goals-against average and six shutouts. A third straight Stanley Cup could solidify his legacy as one of the best ever.
"When we look back, when we're older, that's going to be something that stays there a long time. It's pretty cool to play with a player that's going to go down as one of the best that's ever played the game," Killorn said. "That's how you gauge players: How they play in big-time games. He's been nothing but tremendous in these games."
That championship adaptability
During their run to the Final, the Avalanche have been a team that can win an 8-6 game as comfortably as they can win a 4-0 shutout. In fact, they did both in the same series against the Edmonton Oilers. As Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon said, the Avalanche can play with offensive flourish at home and then play "boring and gross" hockey on the road to slow teams down.
The Avalanche are cooking with a recipe the Lightning created in their past two championship seasons. Tampa Bay has the offensive players to go goal for goal with the Avalanche, who lead the playoffs with 4.64 goals per game. But the Lightning also have the ability to win 1-0, with veteran players embodying the patient poise necessary to do so.
"I think it's just belief in ourselves and belief in the work you put in. But trust is the word. We trust every guy that goes over those boards to do his job. Whether you score a goal or not, it's the little things that you do. It's the defending. It's the blocked shots. It's the sacrifice. It's not complaining about your role. It's going out and playing as hard as you can for the guy that sits beside you in that locker room," Stamkos said.
"That's why this group is so special. We don't know what's going to happen here in the next 10-14 days. But we know we're going to give it our all."
There's no telling how a series will play out before it's played, but it wouldn't be surprising to see the Stanley Cup Final become a battle between the Colorado offense and the variety of ways the Lightning will attempt to defend it. They have Vasilevskiy as the backbone. They have Hedman and McDonagh playing close to 47 minutes per game between them. They have a newly formed checking line with Hagel, Cirelli and Killorn who dominated the Rangers at 5-on-5, and a collection of forwards who pride themselves on defending by any means necessary.
"Does it get contagious? It does. God forbid you watch a guy [block a shot] and then you have a chance to do it. You come to the bench and it's not a fun place to be if you're not willing to do that. So guys get in line in that regard," Cooper said. "That's been the history with us for a number of years. It's kind of built into our culture."
A championship culture, and one that should make for an outstanding Stanley Cup Final against the Avalanche.
Stamkos said the Avalanche were a team the Lightning expected to have played already for the Stanley Cup. Colorado failed to advance past the second round in three straight seasons.
"Now they've broken through. They have just an unbelievable mix of veteran players, star power, grinders, goalie. A huge challenge for us," Stamkos said. "We know how we have to play. It's no secret they have some electric players."
As do the Lightning. They can run and gun. But most likely, it'll be their defense that could make the difference between becoming the sixth team since 1983 to fall short of a three-peat or the first official cap-era dynasty.
"We don't care how it gets done. It just needs to get done," Stamkos said. "We're going to the finals again. We have a chance to do something really special."