Colorado Avalanche brace for Tampa Bay Lightning, knowing 'toughest round is still ahead of us'

DENVER -- The Colorado Avalanche have long aspired to become the Tampa Bay Lightning. Now, it's the Lightning standing between the Avalanche and their first Stanley Cup win since 2001.

The two-time defending champion Lightning topped the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals on Saturday to reach their third consecutive Cup Final, which opens here on Wednesday. Tampa Bay's excellence is what these Avalanche have been chasing. And now, it's within reach -- if only they can dethrone the NHL's heavyweights.

"The way I look at it is, to be the best you've got to expect to be able to beat the best," Avs coach Jared Bednar said Sunday. "That's them. They're the team that everyone's trying to model after. They're in the Final for the third year in a row. They've just won twice in a row. That's what every team is trying to do, not just get there but stay there and be relevant every season in all the conversations with the best teams in the league and go on to prove that they are one."

Colorado has already put in the groundwork there. The Avalanche are 12-2 thus far in the Stanley Cup playoffs, sweeping through both their first-round series against Nashville and the Western Conference finals against Edmonton. Colorado has been idle since securing the Clarence Campbell Bowl on June 6, waiting to see whether the Lightning or Rangers would be their Final matchup.

It was poetic, in a way, to see Tampa Bay come through (again). Colorado can measure itself directly against the club that has dominated their sport the past couple of years, in the hopes they'll be Tampa Bay's successor in that role.

"They're a really good team, but we're confident in ourselves as well," Colorado defenseman Bowen Byram said. "We have a really good team. It's not easy to get to the Cup Final. We're excited for [it]. They have a really good team and we're going to have to play our best to beat them. But we're excited for that challenge."

Bednar admitted Colorado hasn't faced a team quite like Tampa Bay in the postseason. The Lightning have gotten excellent goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy (.928 SV%, 2.27 GAA through 17 playoff games) and are aggressive in boxing teams out around the net. Bednar said his focus on preparing for Tampa Bay began when they took a 3-2 series lead over New York, but a key is for Colorado not to be intimidated by what's ahead.

"We have to play to our identity," he said. "We have specific keys that we look at and things that we try to accomplish in the offensive zone. It has to start with our skating. They're a real deep team, highly committed team on the defensive side of things, dangerous offensively. Great goaltending. They're back where they are for a reason, right? This is a very difficult team to win against. We'll have to be ready for the challenge."

A key advantage Tampa Bay has is in playoff experience -- and knowing how to win when it counts. Colorado captain Gabriel Landeskog said that's "invaluable" to the Lightning this time of year and factors into what makes them such a deep, formidable opponent.

Where Colorado will try to excel is using its recent rest as a weapon. When Tampa had nine days off between the end of its second-round sweep of Florida and puck drop against New York, there was visible rust that contributed to their 2-0 series deficit. Colorado didn't have the same issue between its first-round and second-round matchups. And the Avalanche don't think their current eight-day break will be an issue, either.

"We're not using anything as an excuse," Landeskog said. "We're going to make sure we practice hard, and we rest up and we're ready to go. That's just the group we have. We are ready for what we need to do. I think rest is a good thing in the long run."

What matters most to Colorado is the opportunity still at hand: competing for -- and winning -- that long-coveted Cup.

"It's exciting to be playing and knowing that you're one of the final two teams," Landeskog said. "But the toughest round is still ahead of us. And that's an exciting challenge and it's going to be fun seeing what we can do as a group. I think we've played some really solid hockey over the last six weeks or so, and we want to keep that going."