By WAYNE REDSHAW
We’re down to the nitty gritty — the Stanley Cup finals — and it has all the makings of being a classic.
So far, my crystal ball is functioning not bad. I guess removing all the dust and polishing it has paid dividends.
To date, I am 10-4 in predictions. I was 6-2 in the first round, 3-1 in round two and 1-1 in round three better known as the Conference Finals. Of my four blemishes three of them came compliments of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have won the Stanley Cup the past two seasons
In round one, I picked them to lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs. That didn’t happen. The Lightning prevailed in seven games with clinching 2-1 victory in game seven at Toronto.
Then in round two against the President Cup recipients — the Florida Panthers — I couldn’t see Lightning advancing any further. But they did with a four game sweep.
And in the recent Conference Finals, pitted against the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay came through winning in six games after dropping the first two games on the road.
Now, it’s onto the finals for the third straight year, this time facing the Colorado Avalanche, the Western Conference champions.
So in being wrong about the Lightning in the first three rounds am I about to pick them to win against the Avalanche? I think this series is a toss up. It should be a dandy and as I said earlier a classic.
Looking at the Lightning, first off they are well-coached with Jon Cooper at the controls. He seems to push the right buttons just at the right time. He’s cool and collected and never seems to panic behind the bench. He also has Stanley Cup playoff experience compared to Colorado’s Jared Bernard.
In goal it seems Andre Vasilevskiy has regained the magic that helped the Lightning to back-to-back Cup conquests the past two seasons. He yielded some softies early on in the playoffs against the Leafs but has been rock solid since. Looking at Colorado, Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francois are a good one-two choice but lack experience.
On the blueline both teams are pretty even with Cal Makar the leader for the Avs and Victor Hedman for the Lightning. Of course both have strong supporting cast members. Both bluelines are excellent when it comes to shot blocking. That was one of the keys for the Lightning in the past three rounds.
Upfront, it will be interesting to see if Cooper will get the opportunity the first two games in Colorado to match his ace checking line of Anthony Corelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel against the Avalanches’ top production unit of Nathan MacKinnon (11 goals, seven assists in 14 playoff games), Gabriel Landeskog (8 and 9) and Valeri Nichushkin (5 and 4). The Lightning have Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov leading the offence for Tampa. Both have been unbelievable so far. Tampa has also made it to finals the past 10 games without Brayden Point. He’s expected to return. The big question: how healthy is he?
Home ice I think could be a big factor so the edge goes to the Avs as they start the series at home and have the extra games if it goes seven and it likely will.
Another factor is special teams on the power play and killing off penalties. Both are excellent in both departments. It all boils down as to who gets the favourable bounces.
Overall I think this is going to be a whale of a series, a classic. Tampa going for a three-peat, something that hasn’t been done since the NHL introduced the salary cap. Colorado on the other hand has a lot to prove. It will be interesting to see who is hungry enough to get their hands on the Stanley Cup.
Prediction: As I said this series is a toss-up. I’m going with the Avs in seven. Home ice is a huge factor.
(Wayne Redshaw has covered sports in Niagara for over 50 years, 33 and a half at the Welland Tribune. He was publisher of the FORE! Golfers Only for 12 years and also wrote for many newspapers and magazines in Canada and the United States.)