DENVER (AP) — To win the Stanley Cup each of the past two years, the Tampa Bay Lightning had to go through the stingy New York Islanders, defending Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens backstopped by goaltender Carey Price. To hoist it a third consecutive time, they'll need to stop or at least slow down the highest scoring team in the playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche present a unique challenge for the Lightning, but they already got past the offensively potent Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers to reach the Cup final.
"It's funny how it works out that way, but the guys have found a way and we've just had to adapt our game and find ways to beat teams," coach Jon Cooper said. "You have to play the game different ways at times. We have a belief in how we play, we have a system and we trust what we do, but you do have to tinker with it a little bit to combat especially these high-octane teams."
The Lightning in years past were that high-octane team, able to score virtually at will. Getting swept in the first round in 2019 after steamrolling the rest of the NHL in the regular season made them change their approach.
Tampa Bay's 2.41 goals against this postseason is the lowest of any team that made it past the first round. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is a big part of that, but it's a concerted effort by the entire team to lock things down.
"We have enough skill and talent to score offensively, but we focus on our defensive game," winger Alex Killorn said. "If we don't let them score, we win 2-1, we're happy with that. We don't got to win by six goals or whatever it may be."
Here's a look at how things stack up in the Stanley Cup Final, which begins Wednesday night at Colorado:
There's no shortage of high-end talent in this series. The Avalanche have Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog up front and playoff MVP frontrunner Cale Makar on defense, while the Lightning feature Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos and could be getting first-line center Brayden Point back from injury.
Tampa Bay's recipe for containing talented opponents starts with shutdown center Anthony Cirelli and his linemates, who could find themselves matched up against MacKinnon and Rantanen.
"We just have to try to play with our strength and try to find a way to get a couple goals there and also defend well because they can score, obviously, too, Rantanen said.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The series features two Norris Trophy finalists for the league's top defenseman in Hedman and Makar. And each one dominates the ice in a different way.
Hedman, a 6-foot-6 Swede, won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP in 2020 for how much of the game he controlled and the number of goals he helped create. He can do everything," Makar said.
Makar is a dynamic puck mover and smooth skater who can make almost anything happen by himself.
"He's got a great wrist shot, runs the power play and his edge work is phenomenal," Hedman said. "He can change directions very quickly, so obviously two different type of players, I would say, him and me, but I don't think any one of us is looking at that battle. It's a team game and I'm sure both of us are going to do whatever it takes for our team to be successful."
The Avalanche swept Nashville in the first round, then dispatched St. Louis in six and swept Edmonton in the Western Conference final. The Lightning went the distance to beat Toronto in seven, swept Florida and came back from a 2-0 deficit to knock off the New York Rangers in six.
Colorado is going more than a week between games, while Tampa Bay is coming off the Rangers series that ended Saturday night. MacKinnon said he and his teammates are excited to play with some fresh legs and confidence.
"We have our keys of why we're here," he said. "It's not an accident. We didn't just get a bunch of good bounces and win. We've been playing really well and earning all the victories we have, and we've earned our rest and we're excited."
By STEPHEN WHYNO AP Hockey Writer
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