The Stanley Cup Final is nearly upon us, featuring a matchup of arguably the two best teams in the league that are set to go to war with each other for the foreseeable future.
The Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche are staggeringly deep clubs who have earned a spot in the final dance for a reason. But they also have weaknesses, which their opponent will try to exploit in order to gain an edge.
Let’s take a look at each team’s X-Factor to determine what needs to go their way to win.
Colorado Avalanche – Goaltending
If Darcy Kuemper is healthy, he will likely be the figure in net for the Avalanche when they take on the Lightning at home in Game 1.
And while getting your starting netminder back in the lineup is almost always a good thing, in this case, it can be a decidedly double-edged sword.
Kuemper is a sporadic goaltender. His career save percentage of .918 represents the median between an equal number of truly phenomenal campaigns he’s put together — including this past one when he posted 37 wins and a .921 save percentage — and some real stinkers.
Unfortunately, for the Avalanche, these playoffs have featured more than a few of those stinkers, with Kuemper entering the Cup Final with a .897 save percentage and -3.7 goals saved above average in 10 starts.
That’s, uh, not good. Like, at all, speaking volumes as to just how deep and talented the Avalanche are that they’ve managed to roar their way to within four wins of a Stanley Cup despite getting sub-.900 goaltending for the majority of the playoffs.
Kuemper cannot continue to give them such little value in net. Not if the Avalanche want to win a Cup, and not if Kuemper wants to be the one on the ice to help them do it.
The Lightning, on the other hand, have been here before. They just made the consensus Vezina favorite look human en route to a six-game dismantling of the Rangers to get them to where they are today. What do you think they’ll do to a netminder who’s already on shaky ground?
It won’t be pretty.
The thing is, Kuemper has it in him. The Avalanche paid the steep price of a first-round pick and prospect Connor Timmins to get him last summer for a reason. That reason was to show up when it matters — in games like these.
Pavel Francouz did a good job holding the fort after Kuemper went down in round three. But we all know who their number one option is. Now, he needs to play like it.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Secondary Scoring
Steven Stamkos rules. So does Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, and Victor Hedman.
Aside from those three, though, the Lightning have not really received a ton of offensive help from their depth options.
Alex Killorn is still scoreless through three rounds. Pricey deadline addition Brandon Hagel has two goals — one being an empty netter. Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev have been held to one each. Pat Maroon and Nick Paul have three apiece, which is a nice improvement. But when it comes to overall point scoring, only four players on the Lightning have hit double-digits this far into the playoffs, with Ross Colton’s eight points being the next highest total out of the aforementioned Big Four.
Look, it’s a good thing that the stars are leading the way. If the guys with $9 million+ price tags were being outplayed by the likes of Corey Perry, that would be a problem. But what makes Tampa Bay so dangerous is their cavernous depth, the kind that fills out a roster in which every player knows their role from the first line down to the fourth.
Clearly, they’ve been doing enough to string wins together, looking pretty good in the process, too. But when up against a certified battering ram in the Colorado Avalanche, they’ll need all hands on deck. That includes the players who may not pull in the headlines but are still counted on to chip in.
The only way solution to elite depth is, well, elite depth. The Lightning have it when everyone is firing on all cylinders. Lately, they haven’t. But they need to find that spark soon.