The 2022 Stanley Cup Finals could be decided in Denver Friday night, with the Colorado Avalanche leading 3-1 over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Who needs to stand up for the Lightning to force the series back to Tampa? Who is Conn Smythe’s favorite? Will the Avs take the trophy at home? We asked our hockey experts these questions and more ahead of the potentially decisive game.
Who will we be talking about if the Avs win Game 5?
Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Kal Makar. If Colorado wins the Stanley Cup on home ice, it will be thanks in large part to Makar’s fantastic postseason performance. From start to finish he was consistently amazing. Game 1 of the cup final might not have been Makar’s best game, but he adapted to Lightning’s smothering style and reacted accordingly. He’s the third-best scorer on the entire postseason roster (seven goals and 27 points in 18 games) and is a force to be reckoned with in every situation (see: Minor Goals and Game 2 Power Play).
The way he keeps the games alive with his superior skating and outstanding awareness is just next level. We knew all of this about Makar’s run to the playoffs, but the reigning Norris Trophy winner did even better than advertised and will dominate the conversation if that ends in Colorado’s favour.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: Darcy Kumper. Look, I’m a Kümper-Truther. When I chose the Avalanche to win that series, I did so believing goalie Pavel Francouz would end up taking the crease from him against the Lightning. For a minute it looked like Kümper was routed in Lightning’s Game 3 and had saved a negative goal above expectations for the series. The huge advantage the Lightning had in goal with Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like it could decide the Stanley Cup Finals. That is, until Kuemper made 37 saves in Game 4 and saved more goals than expected (1.14) than Vasilevskiy (1.08). Now the Avalanche are back home, where their speed and foresight helped Kuemper score a shutout in Game 2. It could be a very good night for the keeper and his teammates.
Victoria Matiash, NHL Analyst: Nazem Kadri. Central Colorado has only played one game since June 4 and may have the freshest legs out there, along with an appetite to contribute after sitting without a chance for most of the month. As such, I particularly like his chances of being the ultimate difference maker again after scoring the OT winner in Game 4 (not that that affected the course of the scoring game, but hopefully with the right number of Avalanche skaters on the line this time Ice). . Also, there’s Kadri’s return from surgery on his crushed thumb, which initially looked like it would keep him out for the rest of the playoffs. Even with the magic of modern medicine, he must be in immense pain. Sports fans of all stripes love tales like this, and with good reason.
Arda Öcal, NHL host: I think it will also be Kadri, but since Victoria chose him, I’ll take Valeri Nichushkin. He had an incredible postseason, and I could absolutely imagine him having a special moment in Game 5. Overall I think Cale Makar gets the Conn Smythe, but there are plenty of excellent characters – like Nichushkin – who have given this team a game of their first title since 2001.
With the Lightning getting back into this streak, who’s the only player who needs to step up on Friday?
Shilton: Steven Stamko. And by that I don’t just mean on the ice, although Stamkos could do better than that. Stamkos has just two points in the cup final, both in the Lightning’s 6-2 win over the Avs in Game 3. He has a moment to change the dynamic.
Additionally, Tampa Bay will need Stamkos’ lead to quickly turn the page in Game 4. The Lightning clearly – and perhaps understandably – had strong feelings for Nazem Kadri’s overtime winner. There’s just no time wasting pulling away from those emotions when Tampa Bay intends to extend the series into Game 6. Stamkos is a respected voice. He’s been through a lot personally and professionally. If anyone can share wisdom about endurance, it’s him. Not to say that the Lightning overall aren’t mentally strong enough to overcome the too many men controversy. This just feels like a point where, when it was easy to hang your head, the Lightning will look to their captain for perspective.
Vyshynsky: Andrei Vasilyevsky. He has earned his status as one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history. He played beautifully in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa, then conceded seven goals in Game 2 in Denver. But he has yet to steal a game this series, and if the Lightning want to bring that back to Tampa for Game 6, they’re going to need the Big Cat’s best performance in the playoffs. The Lightning know what’s coming in Denver. The Avalanche are back in front of their fans with the last line change and they get to taste the celebratory champagne. They heal as the Lightning’s list of injuries grows. If ever there was a time when Vasilevskiy made the difference, it’s now.
Matiasch: Victor Hedman. Not only on defense to slow down the Avs, but also on offense for the Lightning cause. Tampa has one power play goal this series, compliments from Corey Perry. one. It won’t fail because of that. The Lightning’s top unit needs to be better, starting with Hedman, who with the extra skater is second only to Nikita Kucherov in postseason points. My guess is Friday officials won’t be hiding their whistles quite as deeply as they did in Game 4. Hedman and his crew will have to take advantage if the call goes their way.
Local: Give me a collection of Ross Colton, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Mikhail Sergachev…many options here. I think a lot of people will point to Vasilevskiy, Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos, but if the Lightning wins Game 5, I think their depth will be the big factor. You will need all four lines to stop the avalanche and continue this series
Will the trophy be presented after Game 5 or is it going back to Tampa?
Shilton: The Flash started hot in game 4 and then faded badly. Colorado went from flat footed to soaring. What else does Tampa Bay have in the tank? Vasilevskiy has carried the Blitz really well so far, while Kuemper had his best performance of the postseason in Game 4. It feels like the stars are aligned for Colorado to win the trophy on home ice in Game 5.
I think they can do it: 4-3 in OT, Avalanche over Lightning.
Vyshynsky: To answer Kristen’s question, I don’t think the Lightning have much left in their tank, or at least not enough to hang out with the Avalanche in Denver right now. Game 5 overtime looked suspect after Games 1 and 2, with Colorado carrying the game in terms of shot attempts and zone time while the Lightning were desperate for a counterattack. The Avalanche can now set their matchups with the latest change, meaning they can take Nathan MacKinnon away from Anthony Cirelli – if checking center is playing, since he’s one of the Lightning’s multiple wounded – and back across from Stamkos’ line, which is the Avalanche into oblivion in the first two games.
I think it ends Game 5 and convincingly: 4-1 Avalanche to win the Stanley Cup.
Matiasch: After all the club has accomplished over the past two years it’s hard to decide against Stamkos & Co. but the Lightning looked like the losing side except for the first period of Game 4 – a competition they absolutely had to win. And while everyone is still saying the right things, the prospect of winning three straight games against such a quality Avalanche team got to feel intimidating. This is the most battered and weary the Lightning have seen in a while.
While I want a game 6 – because it’s fun! – Friday is likely the end of the 2021-22 playoff road: 5-2 Avalanche.
Local: Congratulations to the Colorado Avalanche, your 2022 Stanley Cup champions
Who is your pick for Conn Smythe right now?
Shilton: Makar. I just don’t know who can match from game to game what Makar got into the playoffs for Colorado. MacKinnon was absolutely fine. But not on the same level as Makar. The defender averages 27 minutes of ice time per game in every situation, but seems tireless. If the Avalanche are best at creating chances from the rush, it’s Makar who starts many of them from the back end. He was the Avalanche’s most consistent and dependable player while facing some of the toughest encounters (i.e. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) these playoffs had to offer. What’s more valuable than that?
Vyshynsky: Makar. There are three options here. Nazem Kadri now has two of the most inspiring performances of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with his hat-trick in St. Louis after witnessing the odious reaction to his clash with Jordan Binnington; and with his overtime winner in Game 4 against Tampa Bay in his first game back from thumb surgery. But if an Avalanche forward gets the nod, it’s undoubtedly MacKinnon, who has better numbers and the distinction of being Colorado’s over-intense leader off the ice. But none of them have the numbers of Makar, who has also been effective defensively (as against Connor McDavid’s line) and has set postseason scoring records for defenders. The Norris winner also takes the Conn.
Matiasch: The boring and correct answer is the same as the other two, Makar. Along with partner Devon Toews, the young defender has effectively smothered some of the best in the game. Then there’s his own tally of seven goals and 20 assists in 18 competitions. A lot would have to happen in the next few days for another top contender to emerge.
Local: I said it above, but it’s Makar – he’s a superstar. He is compared to Bobby Orr; that should tell you everything you need to know.