TAMPA — If this year’s Stanley Cup final came complete with a Hollywood-like premier for Wednesday’s series opener, it would feature quite the red carpet.
Either the Lightning will make history in their dynasty run of three straight Cups or Colorado will lift the holy grail for the first since 2001.
The star-studded lineups feature elite defensemen (Cale Makar vs. Victor Hedman), veteran captains (Gabriel Landeskog vs. Steven Stamkos) and high-powered offenses (Nikita Kucherov vs. Nathan MacKinnon).
“These guys are really good,” said Lightning forward Brandon Hagel, who competed against Colorado frequently while playing for the Blackhawks. “A lot of star power.”
After sweeping the Oilers in the Western Conference final on June 6, the Avalanche are coming off an eight-day layoff. But Tampa Bay expects a test.
“They do a lot of really good things in the defensive zone, through the neutral zone, on the forecheck,” said assistant coach Jeff Halpern. “You don’t look at that team and say it’s a one-dimensional team. They’re doing a lot of great things all over the ice.”
A look at Colorado’s top players:
Cale Makar, defenseman
The Norris Trophy finalist leads the Avalanche with 22 points this postseason and is second in the league among active skaters behind Kucherov (23). Makar plays in all situations for the Avalanche (top line, top power-play and second penalty-kill unit), contributing to his league-high ice time of 27:05 per game (among players with at least 10 games played).
“As good as everyone is at skating these days, he’s another notch above,” Bally Sports Sun Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom said. “He’s up there with the elite of the elite, so that means you’re chasing him all the time. ... He’s not just a one-trick pony. ... He has vision that like top 1% of all the players in the league.”
Memorable moment: Makar logged five points (one goal, four assists) in the Game 4 overtime win versus the Oilers. He became the third player in NHL history to score at least five points in a potential series-clinching game, joining Wayne Gretzky (seven in 1985) and John Anderson (six in 1986).
This postseason: Twenty-two points (17 assists) in 14 games
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Against the Lightning this season: Scored in the sixth round of a shootout (and had two assists in regulation) to lift Colorado to a 4-3 win on Oct. 23.
Nathan MacKinnon, forward
MacKinnon is a threat on the team’s top power-play unit with five goals, tied with Kucherov for second-most in the league this postseason. One of the NHL’s fastest players, MacKinnon tilts the Avalanche’s offense, especially on the rush.
“He’s a wild mustang,” Engblom said. “That’s the best analogy. That’s what he makes me think of ever since he’s come into the league, pretty much, but even more so because he’s even bigger and more powerful now. ... Nathan MacKinnon is that powerful Mustang at full gallop and it’s like scorched earth behind him. I feel like the ice is unusable behind him when he’s coming up the ice at full speed.”
Memorable moment: MacKinnon scored the tying goal at 4-all in Colorado’s Game 4 comeback win over the Oilers with 6:30 remaining in regulation.
This postseason: Eighteen points (11 goals) in 14 games
Against the Lightning this season: One goal and two assists in that October shootout. For his career, MacKinnon has 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 15 games against the Lightning, second-most in Avalanche franchise history.
Gabriel Landeskog, forward
Skating on the top line with MacKinnon and Valeri Nichushkin (and on the team’s top power-play unit), the Avalanche captain has found ways to contribute in big moments with 17 points (eight goals) and five multi-point games.
“He’s just a very intelligent, talented player that knows the situations and he has that high-execution value, just like (Ondrej Palat). Pally has that, (Alex) Killorn has that. He’s kind of a mix of those guys because he’ll go to the net, too, and he scores big goals,” Engblom said. “He has that big moment thing about him and he wants to be that guy.”
Memorable moment: In Game 4 of the conference final, Landeskog’s unassisted goal cut Edmonton’s lead to 4-3 with just over 11 minutes remaining in regulation. He also had two assists in that game.
This postseason: Nine assists and eight goals in 14 games
Against the Lightning this season: Had a goal in each of Colorado’s two wins
Nazem Kadri, forward
Kadri has made a name for himself this postseason with six goals and eight assists. The Avalanche’s depth in center, however, thinned when Kadri exited Game 3 of the conference final after getting cross-checked from behind by Evander Kane. Kadri was ruled out for the remainder of the series, then used the layoff to recover from thumb surgery on June 6. If he’s good to go, watch out.
“Hell yeah (he’s an X-factor),” Engblom said. “He was arguably their best forward in at least some of the games and he was one of the best every game.”
Memorable moment: In just over two minutes, Kadri factored in on three Avalanche goals (three assists) in Game 2 of the conference final, tying the franchise record for most assists in a period. His three points were the fastest recorded in the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2000.
This postseason: Eight assists and six goals (two on the power play) in 13 games
Against the Lightning this season: One assist in two games
Darcy Kuemper, goaltender
In the opening round against the Predators, Kuemper took a stick to the face (through his mask) on May 7. He started the second round against St. Louis and played the next six games until exiting with an upper-body injury in Game 1 against Edmonton on May 31.
Pavel Francouz, who stepped in for two games against Nashville, took over again, notably recording a 24-save shutout against Edmonton in Game 2, the first shutout of the postseason for the Avalanche. Francouz went 6-0 in six games with 145 saves on 160 shots, logging a .906 save percentage.
With the layoff ahead of the Cup final, Kuemper said recently that he’s “100%” ready, though no starter has been announced.
“When you’re playing on a team that’s as talented as (Kuemper’s), all they want him to do is fight,” Engblom said. “If he lets in the odd bad goal, OK. But he’s going to be inspired by his team’s play, and he knows his team is going to score some goals ... so he doesn’t have to think shutout or even one goal.
“Just be good, be solid. Make the saves you’re supposed to save, that’s true for every goalie, and every once in a while, steal one, and you’re in pretty good shape if you’re playing on a team as talented as Colorado.”
Memorable moment: Kuemper made 23 saves in his return from the eye injury, a 3-2 overtime win against the Blues.
This postseason: 6-2-0 in 10 games with 210 saves on 234 shots, registering a .897 save percentage
Against the Lightning this season: Went 2-0 with 65 saves on 70 shots
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