Who’s primed to have a dominant Game 2?
The Stanley Cup Final is always clear-your-calendar-viewing, but this matchup is especially juicy in terms of the star power and imprint on the league landscape. The Tampa Bay Lightning, a prospective dynasty, tries to collect its third straight Cup, a feat which had seemed impossible in the 21st century. At the same time, the Colorado Avalanche have the hallmarks of a franchise that could be embarking on its own dynastic run. With a surfeit of skill sharing the ice, the inclination might be to lean into overs. Instead, I am loving the unders and the home team.
Tampa Bay Lightning at Colorado Avalanche
Saturday, June 18 – 8:00PM ET
Hockey scores can be deceiving. A team can get dominated, but stay close because of goaltending. By contrast, a tightly fought game at 5-on-5 can yield a lopsided score because of special teams. A score tells the result, but can mask the story.
Game 1 of the Cup final was decided in overtime, but the play was decisively in Colorado’s favour. The Avs nearly doubled the Lightning in shots at 5-on-5. In the underlying metrics, Colorado finished with a 2.66 expected goals while Tampa Bay produced a meagre 1.22. I’m picking the Avs to win again in Game 2 for three reasons.
First, the forecheck. The Avalanche were immensely successful at interfering with and obstructing the Lightning forecheckers path to the puck. This gave Colorado’s defencemen time to retrieve the puck and make reads to cleanly exit their end. Conversely, the Avs’ forecheck excelled, as evidenced in the Valeri Nichushkin goal.
On the Nichushkin tally, a Lightning breakout imploded from a relentless Avs forecheck. The stretch pass by Victor Hedman to Ross Colton was foiled. A pass to the outlet, Nick Paul, got blown up by a pinching Cale Makar, and Nathan MacKinnon scooped up the puck and found his linemate for Colorado’s second goal.
Because the Lightning were unable to deter the Avalanche forecheckers, Colorado gleefully took away the wall on the Lightning breakout and turnovers proliferated when the puck was forced up the boards.
Adjustments will inevitably be made for Game 2. I think Tampa Bay will look to use more area passes to leave its end. Indeed, toward the conclusion of Game 1, Tampa Bay was flipping the puck out to see the play waged in the neutral zone.
The St. Louis Blues are the template for Avalanche adversaries, as they were the only team this postseason to experience moderate success against the juggernaut. One thing the Blues tried to do is put their forwards in open ice against the Avalanche defencemen. It is worth highlighting that on the Nick Paul and Ondrej Palat goals, Colorado’s defencemen were forced to defend without the aid of their forwards and got beaten.
Another reason I like the Avalanche is the traction they get off the cycle. The Lightning play man-on-man defence, and when Colorado played three-wide high in the offensive zone, it got favourable matchups.
On J.T. Compher’s opportunity in the third period when he was left alone by the near post, Brandon Hagel allowed him to get behind him, choosing instead to try to front the puck. But the matchup of Compher against Hagel had been engineered by Colorado, as Jan Rutta had been drawn to the point when Colorado stacked its bodies three across at the top of the offensive zone.
Entering the series, I assumed Nikita Kucherov would be the easiest mark defensively for the Avalanche. But in another sequence, Hagel’s questionable read allowed Makar to get behind him, only this time Devon Toews opted for the shot instead of the pass to Makar. The Avs’ offensive zone configurations didn’t produce for them in Game 1, but if the Lightning continue to get scrambled in their own end, they will get burned in Game 2.
The third reason to pick the Avalanche is the Lightning’s secondary scoring troubles. Against the Rangers, the Kucherov line became the sole provider of scoring and that was acceptable because the Rangers couldn’t score at 5-on-5. In a low-scoring series, one line can suffice. But Game 1 of the Cup final revealed how problematic Tampa Bay’s bottom-nine forwards might be. The Kucherov line produced six shots at 5-on-5; the other three lines generated eight. The Kucherov line had five high-danger chances. The other three lines combined for two.
The Lightning thrive with their backs against the wall. As soon as you discount them, decrying that they appear tired and sluggish, the Lightning play like gangbusters. I think Andrei Vasilevskiy will be much better for the Lightning on Saturday, but Darcy Kuemper should be improved too, as he was quietly awful in Game 1.
The Avalanche look like the faster, deeper, more well-rested team. I think both teams play better in Game 2, and I’m not betting against the Avalanche at its best.
Pick: Avalanche -155
The breakneck pace of the NHL schedule means that praise is ephemeral. The Anthony Cirelli line was crucial in the Lightning defeating the Rangers and advancing to the Cup final. In Game 1 Wednesday, the good vibes were replaced by the Lightning’s new reality. A Mikhail Sergachev heave helped the Cirelli line post a goal, but the majority of the trio’s time on ice was spent chasing the puck.
The numbers for the Cirelli line were really ugly. The Avalanche tripled them in shots when the Tampa Bay shutdown line was on the ice and nearly doubled them in shot attempts. In scoring chances, the Cirelli line had a -9 differential, creating zero scoring chances at 5-on-5.
In fairness, coach Jon Cooper gives the Cirelli triumvirate the toughest minutes. They are defensive-zone faceoff stalwarts. They played the lion’s share of their minutes against the MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen lines. Nevertheless, even if they have more offensive-zone time in Game 2, which seems inevitable, I am dubious they find the back of the net in a second consecutive game.
Killorn is mired in a 12-game pointless slump. It’s a brutal stretch for a forward who potted 25 goals this season and finished behind only Kucherov and Steven Stamkos in points. But Cooper is using Killorn in a shutdown role, which is not conducive to point accumulation.
One path where Cirelli could pick up a point is as the faceoff man on the power play. In Game 1, he took the initial faceoff to start the man advantage and then immediately left the ice. On one of the draws that Cirelli won, Victor Hedman shuttled the puck to Kucherov who nearly buried it in the top corner. Getting beat on a Cirelli assist like this is a terrifying possibility. But the window of opportunity for him to pick up a point on the man advantage is small.
When ESPN’s Emily Kaplan interviewed Avs coach Jared Bednar during the game about the Lightning power play, the first thing he mentioned was stopping Point in the slot. I don’t know if he was necessarily naming the hierarchy of needs, but the Avalanche defend the slot well, and any time Point touched the puck on the power play, the walls caved in for the Bolts. In that same vein, encircled by bodies and sticks, I think Point’s ability to create with his passing will be crimped.
Point failed not only to register a shot on the power play, but also to register a shot attempt – for the entire game. Fading a banged-up Point – who joins a Lightning power-play unit that probably won’t get many opportunities against the disciplined Avalanche -- seems a worthy endeavour. The price is steep, but all the power-play point unders are. Relative to others in the same range, this one seems the most assured to hit.
Pick: Anthony Cirelli U 0.5 points -160, Alex Killorn U 0.5 points -175, Brayden Point U 0.5 power-play points -200
Context matters. At first glance, betting an under for a player who has notched four points in his last two games and 12 points in his last 15 games might seem risky. But the Lehkonen of Game 4 against the Edmonton Oilers and the Lehkonen of Game 2 against the Lightning has one major difference: linemates.
Against the Oilers, Lehkonen played with Rantanen and Andre Burakovsky. Burakovsky is a fickle player, one who has spent time as a healthy scratch this postseason, while Rantanen is an elite talent.
But in Game 1 of the Cup final, Lehkonen was placed with Darren Helm and Logan O’Connor on a putative checking line. At times, the line looked good, getting the puck below the goal line and hemming the Lightning’s best players in their own end. They created four high-danger chances and allowed two, and Lehkonen was an indisputable catalyst. After all, he is a gifted forechecker, has no qualms about creating traffic around the crease, and can play the F3 role when the Avs run their three-wide set in the offensive zone.
With all that said, Lehkonen has been put in a bottom-six forward energy line role, with aspirations to stymie the Lightning’s top players. The opportunity to fade a bottom-six forward at a reasonable line is a coup.
Of course, Lehkonen scored last game not at 5-on-5, but on a 5-on-3, and his role on the power play is substantial. Lehkonen plays the bumper on the Avs’ man advantage and is a threat to deflect shots or receive a pass from the playmaker on the goal line. But the Lightning’s penalty kill has been solid these playoffs, and if they are disciplined, Lehkonen might not see much opportunity with the man advantage.
The last time Lehkonen strung together a point streak longer than two games he was a Montreal Canadien and that was the end of February and beginning of March. He had one other three-or-more-game point streak and that was in January. I think goals will be hard to come by on Saturday, and I don’t see Lehkonen extending his point streak.
Pick: Artturi Lehkonen U 0.5 points -120