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Biggest lingering Stanley Cup Final questions: Lightning’s power-play woes, Kadri’s comeback, Game 5 predictions

TAMPA, Fla. — The Stanley Cup Final hits differently when hockey’s Holy Grail is in the building.

After four games, the Colorado Avalanche lead the Tampa Bay Lightning, 3-1. The Stanley Cup will be in the house in Denver on Friday night with its white-gloved handlers.

“They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty. We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy,” Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar said.

Here are six questions about the rest of the Stanley Cup Final, from how the Lightning could rally to who the playoff MVP could be if the series closes out this week.

Can the Avalanche close this out in five?

On Daily Wager before the series, I noted that the Avalanche winning in five games had the lowest odds of any scenario at the sportsbooks. This struck me as curious, as the Lightning were the picks of many pundits.

As the saying goes: Follow the money.

But bringing a team to the brink of elimination is different from eliminating it. No disrespect to the teams that the Avalanche swept, but the Tampa Bay Lightning are not the Nashville Predators minus Juuse Saros, nor are they the Edmonton Oilers minus one of Leon Draisaitl‘s functioning legs. Closing out the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions will be difficult.

What the Lightning hope is that the immensity of the moment makes it even more difficult for Colorado.

“Obviously, they’re probably preaching ‘They’ve never been here, they’re going to be tight,’ and that’s fair. But we’ll be ready to go,” Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon said.

He’s right. Steven Stamkos: “The feeling sucks now obviously, but the series wasn’t won tonight. We know what it feels like to be in their shoes, to have a chance, obviously, to win at home. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a pretty nerve-wracking day.”

That it is. Game 5. Series on the line on home ice. An opponent on the ropes.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Avalanche were just here in the second round against the St. Louis Blues and they blew it, losing 5-4 in overtime. They ended up flying back to St. Louis and winning Game 6 on a goal by Darren Helm in the final seconds.

The Avalanche haven’t faced much in the way of adversity in this postseason. They did against the Blues in that spot. Erik Johnson said before the Stanley Cup Final that they don’t intend to self-inflict adversity again.

“That was a heartbreaker in Game 5 against St. Louis,” Johnson said. “We were up and they came back. We didn’t feel too good about that one. I think in the past we’d be a little rattled from that. But we went into St. Louis and won Game 6.

“Mentally, we’ve come a long way from where we’ve been. Sometimes you have to learn from those losses and those defeats. For us, it’s been about staying on the gas and not being content.”

How will the Lightning process their anger?

The Lightning were on the wrong end of a missed call on Nazem Kadri‘s winning goal in Game 4. We knew it the moment the NHL was compelled to put out a statement that said the Hockey Operations department confirmed with all four on-ice officials that they didn’t see a violation, and that it’s a non-reviewable judgment call.

We knew it when we saw the clip after the game:

I had someone who saw the play in the arena tell me that “Kadri hits the ice with MacKinnon more than 40 feet away from the bench” and that “Kadri changes for literally no one.” This clip certainly supports that.

The Lightning, to a man, don’t get angry. “You don’t want to let frustration seep into the room,” Nick Paul told me after Game 2.

It’s something their opponents have noticed, too. “This is a championship-caliber team, and I don’t think they get frustrated,” Colorado defenseman Josh Manson said. “I think they’re patient. And they’ll adjust and they kind of let things go. I think that’s what’s made them so successful.”

Yet if there was ever a moment to embrace their inner Sith and let anger fuel their power, it would be now. It would be knowing that Game 4 ended on a missed call that could have delivered them an overtime power play.

(Not that they would have done anything with it, having failed on 13 of 14 opportunities against Colorado, but it would have been fun to try.)

The moment Lightning coach Jon Cooper walked out of his news conference after one question, quietly seething about the forces of the NHL — from the salary cap to the blown call — as obstacles for his team, I thought two things: that it was a chance to change the postgame narrative, and that his legitimate fury could light a fuse for his players after the emotional letdown of Game 4.

Because, again, they have every right to be angry after this:

It’s not even close.

Will special teams decide the Stanley Cup?

Two games in this series were absolute laughers. The other two were overtime thrillers, as one goal either way could have swung the series. The Avalanche won both of those overtime games. One of the primary reasons they went to the extra session? Special teams.

There isn’t a more lopsided advantage in the Stanley Cup Final than the one that Colorado has on special teams. After Game 4, Colorado is now 6-for-13 with the man advantage, having scored at least once in every game.

“The power play has been a key difference for us getting timely goals and keeping us in games, and guys, when they are out there snapping it around like that, they feel confident and they feel confident in their game,” Avs forward Andrew Cogliano said.

It could be argued that their power play changed the course of Game 4: The puck bounced off MacKinnon’s skate for a goal that tied the game 1-1. The Lightning had a first-period power play with a chance to build a two-goal lead and go for an early knockout. They failed. They had another power play after MacKinnon’s goal to retake the lead. They also failed. They’ve failed on 13 of 14 opportunities in this series against the Colorado penalty kill.

The goal differential in the series is five. The goal differential on special teams is six, including a Cale Makar short-handed goal. Do the math.

“It’s easy to point to that now,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “They scored a bunch of power-play goals. We want to keep it 5-on-5; that’s where we’re our best. Our power play is struggling, not scoring goals, but I feel we’re creating momentum.”

Moral victories don’t count on the scoreboard. Power-play goals do. Like the 10 goals that the Lightning have given up on home ice during this playoff run on the penalty kill (66.7%). That’s not getting it done. That might cost them the Cup.

Is Nazem Kadri one of the playoffs’ greatest redemption arcs ever?

“This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life pretty much.”

That was Kadri after Game 4, talking about playing in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his 13-year NHL career. The same words could apply to his winning overtime goal to move the Avalanche one win from the Cup, as he returned from thumb surgery to contribute to his team.

The same words could apply to Kadri being an asset rather than a liability this postseason.

When I interviewed Kadri back in January, I could tell he was trying to be a different guy. He was tired of being the guy who was suspended six times, including three times in Stanley Cup playoff series. It cost him games in playoff series losses to the Boston Bruins in 2018 and 2019 with the Toronto Maple Leafs. It cost him last postseason with the Avalanche, when he was banned for eight games for hitting Justin Faulk in the head.

“I think I’ve grown from that part of my life. I’ve grown as a player and a person,” he told me.

To watch him in the playoffs is to see someone backing up his words. He has 15 points in 14 games, including two winning goals. He has just six penalty minutes. He didn’t earn any on that infamous play where he went to the net hard, collided with Blues goalie Jordan Binnington, put him out of the series with an injury and compelled Binnington to throw a water bottle at Kadri after the game.

Think about where Kadri was after Game 4, getting mobbed by his teammates after scoring an overtime goal in the Stanley Cup Final. Now think about where he was on May 24, scoring a hat trick against the Blues after being the subject of racist threats over social media, to the point where there was increased police presence both at the Avalanche’s team hotel in St. Louis and around the players’ entrance to the ice. Remember what he said after that game?

“For those that hate, that one’s for them.”

That belongs on a banner at the Stanley Cup parade. Assuming there is one.

So is this over?

The Lightning hit all the familiar defiant notes after Game 4.

“There’s nothing to lose now,” Stamkos said. “We’ve got to go out and have the game of our season next game. We know it’s going to be difficult. We know they’re a heck of a team over there. But we’re not going to quit. We’ve gone too far. Guys have sacrificed so much to get to this position.”

But a few of the Lightning players acknowledged that fatigue was a factor when the game flipped to overtime. They’ve played 21 playoff games this year, and are on their third straight four-round postseason. The Avalanche have played 18 games but had an eight-day layoff before facing the Lightning for the Cup. They tilted the ice as the game went on, reducing the Lightning to a counterpunch team again. The Avalanche were a plus-10 in shot attempts and a plus-6 in scoring chances in overtime.

Now they go back to Denver, where the Avalanche skated them out of the building for two games. Back to where coach Jared Bednar can roll out the MacKinnon line to crater the Stamkos line. Back to where the Lightning didn’t look like the Lightning.

“The mindset is to just win one game; we don’t care what happened before,” Stamkos said. “There’s no point in reliving those games. They’re done and over with, we got to go win one game. That’s our mindset.”

I appreciate the mindset. But I’d be surprised if we’re back in Tampa this weekend.

If it’s over, who wins the Conn Smythe?

Don’t tell MacKinnon he ended a scoring drought in Game 4. “What drought? I had a drought? Three games is a drought?” he said.

When you score with the frequency of Nathan MacKinnon, yeah, it is. He has 21 points in 18 games, including 12 goals. He’s not the leading scorer on the Avalanche. That would be Cale Makar, with 27 points in 18 playoff games — as a defenseman.

I’m not a Conn Smythe voter this year, but if I had to rank the candidates now, they would be:

1. Makar
2. MacKinnon
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy

I think Vasy has been more valuable than Nikita Kucherov or Steven Stamkos, who are the other Lightning possibilities. As for the M&M boys, Makar’s record-setting offense combined with his valiant shutdown role against Connor McDavid was extraordinary.

Is MacKinnon the soul of this team? Yes. Did Makar do more all around for them? I think so.

Are they both going to be drinking from the Cup this week? Probably.

Jersey Foul of the week

From the Stanley Cup Final, truly one of the most baffling Jersey Fouls of the season:

That is a Patrick Roy Colorado Avalanche sweater mashed up with an Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning sweater into a No. 38 “Royvskiy” FrankenJersey. We have … questions.

Was this an attempt to honor two of the NHL’s greatest postseason goalies? Did they purchase it before the Stanley Cup Final? If they purchased it after the matchup was set, was it meant to bridge the gap of animosity against opponents? This was taken in Denver so we’ll assume this person is an Avs fan — what happens to the jersey if the Lightning win? Does it organically rip into two separate halves again?

The Conn Smythe of preposterous playoff Fouls.

Vote of the week

I’m proud to say that the final NHL Awards Watch correctly forecasted all the winners, including Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar winning the Norris Trophy — although no one could have predicted how narrow that margin of victory would end up being.

The final margin was 25 points in the voting. It was the slimmest margin since P.K. Subban won the Norris in 2013 over Ryan Suter by a margin of 36 points. It was close, but not exactly razor-thin: Please recall Nicklas Lidstrom edging Shea Weber for the Norris by nine points in 2011. (Geez Nick, you could have a spread the wealth a little, trophy hog.) The Makar-Josi thing only felt so close because Josi (98) had more first-place votes than Makar (92).

My ballot for the Norris was:

  1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche

  2. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning

  3. Roman Josi, Nashville Predators

  4. Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins

  5. Adam Fox, New York Rangers

I thought Fox was awesome this season, but there was no way he was getting back-to-back Norris wins. He ended up fifth in the actual voting and McAvoy ended up fourth. Charlie Mac received one first-place vote. I don’t think he quite had the offensive chops as the players ahead of him.

I told all the Nashville fans in my mentions that I would explain Makar and Hedman being ahead of Josi, despite the Predators defenseman having an absurd 96 points in 80 games. Let’s start with the trophy’s criteria: “To the defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” Let’s continue with the operative phrase “all-round.”

Josi’s even-strength defensive metrics this season were frankly underwhelming for an elite defenseman. He was the worst defenseman on the Predators in even-strength defensive expected goals above average, per Evolving Hockey (minus-1.3). Makar was second on the Avs (5.2) and Hedman was third on the Lightning (3.8), both very much on the positive side of that metric.

Let’s dive a little deeper. Top Down Hockey had Josi in the 24th percentile among defensemen at even-strength effectiveness. Makar was in the 95th percentile while Hedman was in the 71st percentile.

Both drew tougher defensive assignments than Josi. Both played on the penalty kill with regularity while Josi played 0:43 on average per game on the penalty kill. You don’t always want to penalize players for the coach’s usage of them. For example, I voted Matthew Tkachuk fifth for the Selke Trophy despite him not being used on the penalty kill. But John Hynes’ decision to conserve Josi’s energy by keeping him off the kill — where he averaged 2:07 per game from 2014-15 through 2020-21 — and putting him in offensively advantageous situations against opponents impacted his Norris case. Although it’s also probably the reason he was sixth for the Hart.

In the end, a 0.08 points-per-game gap between Josi and Makar wasn’t wide enough to put him over a D-man that had the better “all-round” season.

Hail Makar, but great job, Josi.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: Auston Matthews

The Maple Leafs star was named MVP by the writers, the most outstanding player by the players and the NHL Award winner most likely to undo shirt buttons to combat Floridian humidity.

Loser: MVP goalies

I gave serious consideration to Igor Shesterkin in the Hart Trophy vote. He was the reason why the Rangers made the playoffs, let alone earned 110 points. My issue was his slight down-tick in the last quarter of the season and the fact he played only 56 games. Those are reasonable critiques. Less reasonable: “Goalies have their own award!” and “You could vote a goalie MVP every year then!” I heard both of these from voters, by the way.

Winner: Paul Maurice

Maurice stepped down as the Winnipeg Jets coach during the season, clearly burnt out and sensing there wasn’t any more he could squeeze out of them. So now he takes over the Florida Panthers, a much different climate (from temps to media), and takes over the defending President’s Trophy winners, whose bar is set at “advance past the second round.” Slam that upgrade button, dude.

Loser: New faces

Let’s welcome the fresh faces that have earned head-coaching jobs this offseason: Paul Maurice (1,685 regular-season NHL games), John Tortorella (1,383), Peter DeBoer (1,015) and Bruce Cassidy (509 games)! Up next, a newbie named Barry Trotz who is seeking an NHL head-coaching gig for a 24th season.

Winner: Loudness

The Stanley Cup Final isn’t just blessed with two great conference champions with a galaxy of stars. It’s blessed with two incredible arena experiences. From the “All The Small Things” singalongs in Denver to the sheer volume of the Bolts fans in Tampa who are anything but content with two straight Cups, they’ve elevated an already epic final round. Especially when you consider both of these teams were playing inside empty buildings in summer 2020. You don’t know what you got ’til it’s back.

Loser: Sweetness

The Panthers are removing “Sweetness” by Jimmy Eat World as the team’s goal song for the 2022-23 season. The band was listening (“WHOA-OH-OH-OHOHOH!”) and handed the Panthers another postseason defeat.

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