Avalanche and Lightning set for expected Stanley Cup clash

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Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos (91), head coach Jon Cooper and defenseman Victor Hedman (77) pose with the Prince of Wales Trophy after the team defeated the New York Rangers in the sixth NHL Stanley Cup playoff game. Saturday, June 11, 2022, in Tampa, Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

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Steven Stamkos has watched the Colorado Avalanche for the past few years and figured he and the Tampa Bay Lightning would see them in the Stanley Cup Finals before then.

The Lightning are back, seeking the NHL’s first hat-trick in nearly 40 years, and the Colorado core led by Nathan MacKinnon is finally playing for the Cup after a series of crushing playoff disappointments. A potentially epic best-of-seven series between the two-time defending champions and western hockey’s best begins with Game 1 Wednesday in Denver.

Stamkos called the Avalanche “probably the best team in the league” and knows the Lightning will have their hands full to slow the offensive juggernaut that leads the playoffs in points.

“It’s no secret that they have electric players,” Stamkos said Saturday night after Tampa Bay knocked out the New York Rangers in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. “Now they have broken through. They just have an amazing mix of veteran presence, star power, crushers, a goalie. A huge challenge for us. »

It may be the biggest challenge yet for the Lightning since that streak of unprecedented playoff success in the salary cap era began two years ago. Tampa Bay is not only the first team to participate in the last three straight years since the cap was put in place in 2005, but the first in league history since Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers from 1983-1985 .

The Lightning are looking to become the first to triple since the New York Islanders won the Cup four times in a row from 1980 to 1983.

“There are still a few games to play and we are still not at the end of our target, but saying that this group is quite incredible,” said Stamkos, who scored twice in the 2-1 win over Los Angeles. Rangers. “We are going to the final again and we have the chance to do something really special.”

This is Tampa Bay’s fourth trip to the Finals since 2015. Stamkos, top defenseman Victor Hedman, wingers Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and coach Jon Cooper have been there to it all, from the loss at Chicago seven years ago to two final outings in the East, an embarrassing first-round sweep after the best regular season in league history and back-to-back championships.

MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and the Avalanche have only had playoff lows so far, losing in the first or second round each of the past four years as the Lightning made long runs.

“That’s what every team is trying to (do) is not just to get there, but to stay there and be relevant every season,” Colorado coach Jared Bednar said. “They’re in every conversation as one of the best teams in the league and then go out and prove they’re one.”

The Avalanche aren’t quite there yet, but they’ve come a long way in the decade-plus since veteran defenseman Erik Johnson arrived at the start of a seven-year streak with just one playoff appearance. .

“There were a lot of ups and downs,” Johnson said. “We’ve been knocking on the door here for the past two years. Some injuries and things that happened along the way, you never know if that opportunity is going to come.

This opportunity is sometimes missed by the best hockey players. San Jose’s Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist and many others have only reached the final once.

According to six-time champion Mark Messier, the key to victory is trust between teammates.

“Confidence is everything,” said Messier, now an ESPN analyst. “You have to be able to trust everyone on the ice to make the right decisions, and that’s the beauty of the playoffs because no one can win alone. Everyone needs the person sitting next to you to look their best, and you need to be sure they’re doing the work and the details to be the best they can be.

That confidence has grown for the Bednar Avalanche over his last six years behind the bench. It’s well-established for the Lightning, to the point that Stamkos brought it up uninvited Saturday night and sounded like Messier.

“Trust is the word,” the longtime Tampa Bay captain said. “We trust every guy that comes over these boards to do their job. Whether you score a goal or not, it’s the little things you do. It’s defense, it’s counters, it’s sacrifice, it’s not complaining about your role. It’s just going out and playing as hard as you can for the next guy who’s sitting next to you in that locker room.

Only the Avalanche, seeking the organization’s first championship since 2001, opposes the Lightning to lift the Cup a third straight time.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen here in the next 10-14 days, but we know we’re going to give it our all,” Stamkos said. “It’s taken us so far yet, and it’s just a special group and a treat to be part of.”

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AP Sports Writers Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Fla., contributed.

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Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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