- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
- Greg Wyshynski is ESPN’s senior NHL writer.
The Stanley Cup Final will last at least six games this year after the Tampa Bay Lightning won Game 5 3-2, keeping the Colorado Avalanche away from the Cup for at least two more days.
Game 6 is Sunday in Tampa (8 ET, ABC and ESPN+). With Colorado leading the series 3-2, what are the keys to victory for each side? How confident are they in the goaltending? And who will emerge victorious?
Path to victory for the Avs
Kristen Shilton: Colorado clearly knows how to beat Tampa Bay: Play fast, create rush opportunities and be fastidious in the details on the breakout. Anything less, and the Lightning find ways to push back and capitalize. The Avalanche dominated early in this series through the neutral zone. That hasn’t been the case lately. And Colorado hasn’t been generating the same fast starts it used to. If anything, the Avalanche have looked their best in the third period and overtime in the games since that 7-0 walloping they delivered in Game 2.
If Colorado intends to fly home with the Stanley Cup after Game 6, it has to get back on the attack. There’s no point in being afraid to make mistakes at this point, which the Avalanche looked to be concerned about for most of Game 5.
Closing out the Lightning isn’t easy; they wouldn’t be alive in the playoffs if it were. Tampa Bay has been down in three of its four series. Colorado needs to display way more desperation in its game to shut down a Lightning group hardwired to excel in the clutch. The Avalanche have the talent and tools required to finish off Tampa Bay. What they have to channel in Game 6 is the killer instinct that was at the forefront of their early-series performances. Colorado has been excellent on the road in these playoffs, going 7-1 through four series.
“We’ve been good because we just continue to play our game regardless of the venue,” Avs coach Jared Bednar said after Game 5. “Guys have been digging in on the road. We’ve seen it through the regular season. We’ve seen it really step up into the playoffs. Guys come in hungry and ready to play and play to our identity. So it’s a 60-minute effort here. I thought the game in Tampa that we won [4-3 in OT in Game 4], we got stronger as the game went on.”
Path to victory for Lightning
Greg Wyshynski: The Lightning have believed in their recipe for defeating the Avalanche all series. It’s just that in the first two games their ingredients were spoiled by terrible starts — multigoal deficits in the first 10 minutes that were partially caused by untimely penalties. But in the past three games, they started cooking, leading after the first period in all three contests.
“You can see what can happen. Won Game 3, Game 4 goes into overtime, this was a tight game. That’s how we want to keep it, that’s how we want to play,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “We know the dynamic skill set they have. If we can stay disciplined, stay out of the penalty box, try to eliminate their skill as much as you can. That’s the way this team has won and we’re built to play games that are tight like that.”
The Lightning are comfortable playing in tight games. They rely on goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, like the solid 35-save performance they received in Game 5, and on great team defense that kept Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Nazem Kadri without a goal in Game 5.
But they can only win those tight games if they get enough scoring. Sometimes that comes from unlikely sources like defenseman Jan Rutta. Often it comes from clutch players like Ondrej Palat, whose 11 goals this postseason have him in the Conn Smythe conversation.
“I don’t even know what else I can say to describe the guys,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “You’re down in the series, Cup’s in the building. You’re in a great environment for the home team. And how do you show gamesmanship? Everything we just did. You get the lead, you defend, you kill off penalties, score on the power play. And then when you need the big goal at the end, you get it.”
Goalie confidence check
Shilton: I would place Darcy Kuemper at a 7.5/10 on the confidence scale.
Bednar didn’t exactly give Kuemper a ringing endorsement in calling his Game 5 performance “OK,” but then Kuemper did cede an easily stoppable playoff goal to Rutta, so perhaps Bednar wasn’t far off.
Kuemper has been inconsistent. That wasn’t much of an issue because Colorado has been exceptional in front of him so Kuemper’s comparative mediocrity at times didn’t require overanalysis. Tampa Bay is no ordinary opponent, and Vasilevskiy no regular netminder. There’s more spotlight on Kuemper now than ever and Vasilevskiy has gotten the better of him.
That being said, Kuemper was sensational (minus one Victor Hedman backhand goal allowed) in Colorado’s Game 4 victory. That’s where the Avalanche need him in Game 6. It’s practically a given that Kuemper will give up one bad goal. That would be manageable. I think Kuemper can outduel the Lightning, if not Vasilevskiy directly. The most important thing is he doesn’t let Bednar — or anything else — disrupt him mentally ahead of another critical game.
Wyshynski: My confidence in Vasilevskiy is about a nine out of 10.
I don’t think he quite has the aura he has had in previous runs. He still makes a few wonky saves that give the Avalanche second chances. He’s outplaying Kuemper, but he had only 0.28 goals saved above expected in Game 5.
The Lightning’s confidence in Vasilevskiy is basically an 11 out of 10.
“He’s played the most hockey, more than anyone the last three years. The guy just has it,” winger Pat Maroon said. “He finds a way every single night. It’s very impressive. The way he’s been doing it in the regular season, playing 50-plus games, three playoff runs. He plays all 60 minutes. So he’s the guy.”
What we’re watching for in Game 6
Shilton: What happened to Nathan MacKinnon’s finish?
He is dazzling to watch with the puck. He can stick handle through a phone booth. But why has his goal scoring evaporated in the Cup Final? Yes, MacKinnon is getting the toughest line matches. And he did technically register a goal when Mikko Rantanen’s pass went off his skate in Game 4. MacKinnon has had flashes of greatness in this series that aren’t producing goals. But MacKinnon needs to actually fire pucks in. That has never been more imperative than now, on the cusp of a critically important clincher.
Players always say the important thing is generating opportunities and MacKinnon is clearly doing that. But there’s little runway left for him to help the Avalanche by appearing on the scoresheet with tangible results. If MacKinnon is the changed man everyone claims him to be, and is playing loose, this is the moment to show it with well-timed goals off his stick, rather than skate.
Wyshynski: Are we about to witness the pivot point for special teams in the Stanley Cup Final?
The X factor in Game 5 was the Lightning finally converting on the power play for only the second time in 18 opportunities. Nikita Kucherov’s goal on a 4-on-3 advantage was that extra tally they lacked in overtime losses in Games 1 and 4.
“The power play has been struggling a little bit,” Stamkos said. “Obviously a big moment in the game. Hopefully we can get some confidence off that as well.”
Meanwhile, the penalty kill had its best showing. It was the first time in five games that the Avalanche did not score a power-play goal, having gone 6-for-13 with the man advantage previously. But the key number was two, as in the number of power plays the Lightning handed to Colorado. It was the second straight game in which they limited the Avalanche to two power plays. That’s huge.
Final score predictions
Shilton: I still think Colorado is the better team. And the Avalanche haven’t lost consecutive games in the playoffs. Tampa Bay is impressively resilient. The Lightning really do leave it all on the ice every night and Game 5 showed they are nothing but gutsy. If Colorado can play the entire 60 minutes like it did the final 20 of that game, and if Kuemper can be his best self, the Avalanche should find a way. 4-2 Colorado.
Wyshynski: My preseries prediction was Avalanche in six, and I’ll stick to that. Kuemper has to be better and MacKinnon, Landeskog and Rantanen have to assert much more dominance. I think they will. I like them to win another tightly played game in Tampa and finally raise the Cup again. 3-2 Colorado.
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