Who needs to step up for the Lightning to force the series back to Tampa? Who is the Conn Smythe favorite? Will the Avs lift the Cup at home? We asked our hockey experts those questions and more ahead of the possible clinching game.
Who will we be talking about if the Avs win Game 5?
Kristen Shilton, NHL reporter: Cale Makar. If Colorado wins the Stanley Cup on home ice it will be in large part due to Makar’s fantastic postseason performance. From start to finish, he has been consistently incredible. Game 1 of the Cup Final might not have been Makar’s best, but he adjusted to the Lightning’s smothering style and responded accordingly. He is the third-leading scorer in the entire postseason field (seven goals and 27 points in 18 games) and is a force in every situation (see: scoring short-handed and on the power play in Game 2).
The way he can keep plays alive with his superior skating and excellent awareness is just next level. We knew all this about Makar going into the playoffs, but the reigning Norris Trophy winner has been even better than advertised and will dominate the conversation if this ends in Colorado’s favor.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL reporter: Darcy Kuemper. Look, I’m a Kuemper truther. When I picked the Avalanche to win this series, I did so believing that goalie Pavel Francouz would eventually take the crease from him against the Lightning. For a minute, it looked that way: Kuemper was pulled in the Lightning’s Game 3 rout and had a negative goals saved above expected for the series. The massive advantage the Lightning had in goal with Andrei Vasilevskiy looked like it could tip the Stanley Cup Final. That is, until Kuemper made 37 saves in Game 4 and had a higher goals saved above expected (1.14) than Vasilevskiy (1.08). Now the Avalanche are back home, where their speed and forechecking helped Kuemper pitch a shutout in Game 2. It could be a very good night for the goalie and his teammates.
Victoria Matiash, NHL analyst: Nazem Kadri. Playing just one game since June 4, the Colorado center might have the freshest legs out there, along with an appetite to contribute after being starved of the chance for most of the month. So I particularly like his chances of being the ultimate difference-maker, again, after scoring the OT winner in Game 4 (not that it affected how the scoring play unfolded, but hopefully with the proper number of Avalanche skaters on the ice this time). Plus, there’s Kadri’s return following surgery on his mashed thumb that initially looked like it would keep him out for the rest of the playoffs. Even considering the magic of modern medicine, he must be in immense pain. Sports fans of all stripes adore such narratives, and for good reason.
Arda Ocal, NHL host: I think it will be Kadri, too, but since Victoria picked him, I’ll take Valeri Nichushkin. He has had an incredible postseason, and I could absolutely see him having a signature moment in Game 5. Overall I do think Cale Makar gets the Conn Smythe, but there are many excellent pieces — like Nichushkin — who have brought this team one game from its first title since 2001.
If the Lightning are going to get back into this series, who is the one player who needs to step up on Friday?
Shilton: Steven Stamkos. And I don’t just mean on the ice, although Stamkos could add some more there, too. Stamkos has only two points in the Cup Final, both in the Lightning’s 6-2 drubbing of the Avs in Game 3. He’s due for a more momentum-shifting moment.
Beyond that though, Tampa Bay will need Stamkos’ leadership to turn the page quickly on Game 4. The Lightning clearly — and perhaps understandably — had strong feelings about Nazem Kadri’s overtime winner. There is simply no time to waste moving on from those emotions if Tampa Bay intends to extend the series to Game 6. Stamkos is a respected voice. He has been through a lot himself, personally and professionally. If anyone can share wisdom on perseverance, it’s him. Not to say the Lightning at large aren’t mentally tough enough to get over the too-many-men controversy. This just feels like a juncture where, when it would be easy to hang their heads, the Lightning will look to their captain for perspective.
Wyshynski: Andrei Vasilevskiy. He has earned his status as one of the best postseason goalies in NHL history. He played marvelously in Games 3 and 4 in Tampa, after that seven goals-against horror show in Game 2 in Denver. But he hasn’t stolen a game in this series, and if the Lightning are going to run this back to Tampa for Game 6 they’re going to need the Big Cat’s best performance of 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 can taste the celebratory champagne. They’re getting healthy as the Lightning’s list of injuries grows. If ever there was a time for Vasilevskiy to be the difference-maker, it’s now.
Matiash: Victor Hedman. Not only on defense, working to slow down the Avs, but also helping the Lightning’s cause on offense. Tampa has one power-play goal this series, compliments of Corey Perry. One. That’s not going to cut it. The Lightning’s top unit has to be better, beginning with Hedman, who sits second only to Nikita Kucherov in postseason points with the extra skater. I suspect the officials on Friday won’t tuck their whistles away quite as deeply as they did in Game 4. Hedman and crew need to take advantage when the call goes their way.
Ocal: Give me a collection of Ross Colton, Ondrej Palat, Anthony Cirelli, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, Mikhail Sergachev … lots of options here. I think a lot of people will be pointing to Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov and Stamkos, but if the Lightning are going to win Game 5, I think their depth is going to be the big factor. They’re going to need all four lines to stop the Avalanche and continue this series
Will the Cup be handed out after Game 5, or are we headed back to Tampa?
Shilton: The Lightning started Game 4 hot and then faded badly. Colorado went from flat-footed to flying high. What does Tampa Bay have left in the tank? Vasilevskiy has been really good carrying the Lightning so far, while Kuemper had his best performance of the postseason in Game 4. It feels like the stars are aligning for Colorado to win the Cup on home ice in Game 5.
I think they can do it: 4-3 in OT, Avalanche over Lightning.
Wyshynski: To answer Kristen’s question, I don’t think the Lightning have much left in their tank, or at least not enough to hang with the Avalanche in Denver at this moment. The overtime of Game 5 looked suspiciously like Games 1 and 2, with Colorado carrying play in terms of shot attempts and zone time while the Lightning were desperately hoping for a counterpunch. The Avalanche now get to set their matchups with the last change, which means they can get Nathan MacKinnon away from Anthony Cirelli — if the checking center plays, as he’s one of the Lightning’s several walking wounded — and back across from Stamkos’ line, which the Avalanche forechecked into oblivion in the first two games.
I think it ends with Game 5 and convincingly: 4-1 Avalanche to win the Stanley Cup.
Matiash: It’s hard to pick against Stamkos & Co. after everything the club has accomplished these past two years, but the Lightning looked like the lesser side for all but the first period of Game 4 — a contest they really needed to win. And though everyone is still saying all the right things, the prospect of capturing three straight games against such a quality Avalanche team must feel daunting. This is the most banged-up and tired the Lightning have looked in some time.
While I want a Game 6 — because fun! — Friday is likely the end of the 2021-22 playoff road: 5-2 Avalanche.
Ocal: Congratulations to the Colorado Avalanche, your 2022 Stanley Cup champions
Who is your Conn Smythe pick right now?
Shilton: Makar. I just don’t know game-by-game who can match what Makar has brought for Colorado in the playoffs. MacKinnon has been good, absolutely. But not on the same level as Makar. The defenseman is averaging over 27 minutes of ice time a game in every situation, yet appears indefatigable. When the Avalanche are at their best creating chances off the rush, it’s Makar getting a lot of that started from the back end. He has been the Avalanche’s most consistent and reliable player while facing some of the toughest matchups (i.e. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) these playoffs had to offer. What’s more valuable than that?
Wyshynski: Makar. There are three choices here. Nazem Kadri now has two of the most inspiring performances of the Stanley Cup playoffs, with his hat trick in St. Louis after facing the abhorrent reaction to his collision with Jordan Binnington; and with his overtime winner in Game 4 against Tampa Bay, in his first game back after 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 uber-intense leader off the ice. But neither of them has the numbers of Makar, who also has been defensively impactful (like against Connor McDavid’s line) and has set scoring records for defensemen in the postseason. The Norris winner takes the Conn too.
Matiash: The boring and correct answer is the same as the other two, Makar. Alongside partner Devon Toews, the young defenseman has effectively stifled some of the best in the game. Then there’s his own count of seven goals and 20 assists in 18 contests. A lot would have to happen in the next few days for another top contender to emerge.
Ocal: I said it above, but it’s Makar — he’s a superstar. He gets compared to Bobby Orr; that should tell you everything you need to know.