The Tampa Bay Lightning’s third straight trip to the Stanley Cup Final might be the most impressive because it came after a necessary salary-cap shakeup.
“This group is pretty amazing, pretty special,” Captain Steven Stamkos said. “You know the talk all season long, we lost some guys and guys just came in and played amazing. We made some moves at the deadline and those guys have been instrumental.”
The Lightning lost the third line of Yanni Gourde, Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, as well as forward Tyler Johnson. They rebuilt their last six by adding Corey Perry and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare in the offseason, plus Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul and Riley Nash at Deadline.
That group has joined an impressive core that will be looking to become the first team since the 1980s to win three straight Stanley Cups. The highly rated Colorado Avalanche stands in the way, with the final kicking off in Denver on Wednesday (8 pm ET, ABC).
Ranking of the top 20 players to watch in the Stanley Cup Final:
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1. Goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy, Lightning: The money keeper allowed at least three goals in his first six playoff games. But outside of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, he has been marked ever since, including conceding three goals in a second-round sweep of the No. 1 overall Florida Panthers. He will be the toughest goalie the Avalanche has ever faced.
2. Cale Makar Defense, Avalanche: He’s averaging 1.57 points per game, helped by five points in the Game 4 decider against the Oilers. The Norris Trophy finalist leads Colorado in ice time, runs the power play and is dangerous on the offensive run, but he’s also in the top drive for penalty kills.
3. Stamkos, Ray: He defines doing whatever it takes to win. He blocks shots, scores key goals and even got into a fight. Sitting in the penalty box as the Rangers tied Game 6, he scored the game-winning goal 21 seconds later.
4. Forward Nathan MacKinnon, Avalanche: His playoff hat-trick was capped by a spectacular run from end to end. He also has solid possession numbers.
5. Forward Nikita Kucherov, Lightning: He has led the playoffs in scoring the past two seasons. He has a chance to make three in a row.
6. Defense Victor Hedman, Lightning: He is a Norris Trophy finalist six years in a row and was the 2020 playoff MVP.
7. Forward Gabriel Landeskog, Avalanche: He provides leadership and physical play, plus he’s tied for third on the team in playoff points. That’s why securing him for eight years was the team’s top priority last offseason.
8. Forward Anthony Cirelli, Lightning: Cirelli, who finished fifth in the Selke Trophy voting, has faced the opponent’s best crosses. His line with Alex Killorn and Hagel will be tasked with trying to shut down the MacKinnon line.
9. Forward Artturi Lehkonen, Avalanche: It was a hidden acquisition at the Montreal Canadiens’ trade deadline. In addition to his penalty, he has been a decisive scorer with three game-winning goals, including the goal in overtime that took the Avalanche to the final.
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10. Striker Ondrej Palat, Lightning: He has scored two game-winning goals in the last two minutes of a match. The pending unrestricted free agent is averaging 0.67 points per game in the playoffs.
11. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, Lightning: Not flashy, just constant. He kills penalties and leads the team with 50 blocked shots.
12. Forward Mikko Rantanen, Avalanche: After spending the first seven games without scoring, he has five goals in the last seven. He moved into the No. 2 center role with Nazem Kadri out due to thumb surgery.
13. Defender Mikhail Sergachev, Lightning: Play more than 21 minutes per game. He had a great Game 5 against the Rangers with a goal and an assist.
14. Defense Devon Toews, Avalanche: He makes it possible for defensive teammate Makar to go away, but he also puts up solid offensive numbers. The Makar-Toews matchup is usually used against the opponent’s top lane.
15. Forward Valeri Nichushkin, Avalanche: The Dallas Stars bought him in 2019 and he spent the last three seasons in Colorado. The pending free agent had a career-high 52 points in the regular season and is having a solid postseason run.
16. Goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper, Avalanche: He’s been injured twice during these playoffs and can’t match Vasilevskiy (.897 vs. .928 save percentage). But with the offense facing Kuemper, the Avalanche don’t need him to win games on their own. He just doesn’t lose one due to a mistake.
17. Defender Erik Johnson, Avalanche: Like McDonagh, he’s stable, not ostentatious. The former No. 1 overall pick has been with the Avs since 2010-11 and has never won a Cup. Will he be the second person to receive the Cup if the Avalanche wins?
18. Perry, Lightning: He has reached the Final three years in a row with different teams. He won a Cup with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. The upset game of his is as important as the five goals of his in the playoffs.
19. Forward JT Compher, Avalanche: He’s playing a bigger role with Kadri out.
20. Forward Pat Maroon, Lightning: As Tampa Bay seeks a third straight title, it’s going for four in a row, having won with St. Louis in 2019. He doesn’t have a lot of time on the ice, but it shows during his at-bats.
Forward Brayden Point, Lightning: He would be at the top of the list if he was healthy. He led the Lightning in goals during both of his Cup careers, but hasn’t played since he was injured in Game 7 of the first round. Coach Jon Cooper said of his status: “I don’t know about the likelihood of Game 1, but it’s extremely likely he’ll play in the series.”
Kadri, avalanche: The same thing. High if healthy. Known for his vitality and scoring touch, the pending free agent has avoided the suspensions that had plagued him in previous playoffs.