DENVER — On one side of these Stanley Cup finals sits the Tampa Bay Lightning, an NHL powerhouse seeking its third straight championship. On the other is an up-and-coming Colorado Avalanche team littered with superstar talent and depth.
“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty, and we’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy,” Colorado defenseman Cale Makar said Tuesday.
The Avalanche hopes this is the first of many trips to the finals for this group. The final roadblock is a Lightning team that has set the standard for years.
“I’m glad we are playing Tampa,” Colorado star Nathan MacKinnon said. “We are playing the best.”
The Lightning is looking to become the first team to win the Stanley Cup three straight years since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980 to 1983. The Avalanche last won the title in 2001 and hadn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs since 2002.
“It’s surreal,” Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos said. “You can never dream of this. … Three in a row — who would have ever thought that? Certainly proud of the group. We have a good opportunity right now. Let’s take advantage of it.”
Tampa Bay advanced by defeating the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals. The Lightning lost the first two games of that series but rallied to win the next four.
Colorado is coming off a long layoff; the Avalanche swept the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals and hasn’t played since June 6.
Rust is expected after a long time away, but Colorado’s leadership isn’t concerned.
“Our guys, especially this year, really competed and faced a lot of adversity and overcame it every single time,” General Manager Joe Sakic said. “It’s a group that believes in each other, and we believe in them. … We’re looking to dethrone the champs.”
Part of the adversity has been injury-related, with both teams dealing with ailments during their postseason runs. Lightning center Brayden Point, who has 60 points in 53 games over the past three postseasons, has not played since May 14. He suffered a lower-body injury after he got tangled up along the boards during a Game 7 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday that there was a chance Point plays in Game 1. He was a full participant in Tuesday’s practice and said he would see how he felt Wednesday.
“You want to play,” he said. “Playoffs is the reason we play hockey … but just seeing the team and seeing how they are playing, it makes it a lot easier [being out with injury].”
Colorado’s Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano underwent surgery for hand injuries suffered during the Western Conference finals. Coach Jared Bednar did not provide updates on their status Tuesday.
Darcy Kuemper, Colorado’s top goaltender, suffered an upper-body injury in that series and used the long layoff to recover. Kuemper said Tuesday that he was ready to go but was not sure whether he would start Game 1. He is 6-2 in the postseason with a 2.65 goals against average and an .897 save percentage.
With Kuemper out, Pavel Francouz stepped in and posted a 6-0 record with a 2.86 goals against average and a .906 save percentage. Francouz is expected to back up Kuemper for Game 1, barring any unforeseen setbacks.
“We’re definitely confident in both goalies,” Sakic said. “They’ve both won six games in the playoffs.”
While Kuemper will be tasked with controlling a consistent, steady Tampa Bay offense, Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will try to contain Colorado’s potent attack. Makar, 23, leads the way with 22 points in 14 games, using his speed and skill to create havoc.
Colorado’s formidable offense also features the talents of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen. MacKinnon, 26, has 18 points in the postseason.
Winger Nikita Kucherov paces Tampa Bay with 23 points in the postseason. Stamkos, who had a career-best 106 points in the regular season, leads the way with nine goals.
“They’ve got a lot of really good shooters, a lot of talent, a dangerous power play and great goaltending, and they’re well-coached,” Bednar said. “They’re here for a reason. We understand that. We’ve been building for a couple years to try and get here. Now we’re here, and we see it as a great opportunity and a great challenge.”