2022 Stanley Cup Final: How to watch Colorado Avalanche vs. Tampa Bay Lightning series live streaming on TV Channel
The Stanley Cup Final is determined by more than star players. It's also about star turns. The ones we expect, and often the ones we don't.
The Tampa Bay Lightning know that better than anyone. The two-time defending Stanley Cup champions are back in the Final for a third straight season, facing a red-hot Colorado Avalanche team that hasn't appeared in a Final since 2001.
Both sides are stacked with big-name, big-time players who will play a critical role in the series outcome. There are also valuable secondary contributors in each lineup, the X factor guys who may lack for flash but have a key role in supporting what their team does best.
And of course, there's the goaltending.
Andrei Vasilevskiy is inarguably one of the best netminders in the world and he is arguably been Tampa's (and perhaps the entire NHL's) MVP this postseason.
Colorado has leaned on its depth in net, succeeding in front of starter Darcy Kuemper and backup Pavel Francouz. Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury in the Avalanche's Western Conference finals series against Edmonton, but says he's 100% healthy again. Francouz was excellent in Colorado's sweep of the Oilers though, with a .908 SV% and 2.81 GAA (including one shutout).
Kuemper returned to backup Francouz in Game 4 of that conference finals; whom Colorado taps for the Game 1 start against Tampa Bay (8 p.m. ET Wednesday, ABC and ESPN+) remains to be seen.
We know the goaltenders. We know the stars. We'll explore a few other important players who will ultimately help decide who's hoisting Lord Stanley's chalice -- and who might go home disappointed.
Cirelli has just one goal and five assists in the postseason, but he's dominated as the Lightning's top shutdown center. His line with Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn was a major issue for New York in the Eastern Conference finals, limiting chances for Mika Zibanejad's unit and generally frustrating every forward it was up against.
Even Rangers coach Gerard Gallant became annoyed with questions about Zibanejad's lack of production against Cirelli's forceful checking line. Cirelli's work ethic was simply no match for New York's best offensive generators, and that's what will make him so important -- and dangerous -- in the Cup Final.
Colorado has its own stable of top producers and are a deeper team offensively than the Rangers. That will require increased effort from Cirelli in whatever matchup he gets to not allow the Avalanche gamebreakers to get rolling.
It's been tough on Tampa Bay not having Brayden Point available since Game 7 of its first-round series against Toronto. Cirelli is one of those players who has stepped up. He hasn't been perfect -- winning key faceoffs will continue to be a point of emphasis -- but Cirelli can be trusted anywhere on the ice and won't be intimidated by any skater across from him.
Kadri's availability for the Cup Final remains uncertain. The center had surgery last week on a broken thumb suffered when Evander Kane boarded him in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. There's a chance Kadri could be back at some point in the Cup Final, but that's hardly guaranteed. Andrew Cogliano also had a similar surgery to Kadri's, and his status further hampers Colorado's depth upfront.
All that points toward is a larger role for Compher. The postseason started slowly for Compher, as he logged zero goals and just two assists in Colorado's first nine games. Compher didn't turn a corner until the Avalanche's second-round series against St. Louis. There, he lit the lamp twice in Colorado's series-clinching Game 6 victory. He has tallied five goals in Colorado's past six games (including the game winner against Edmonton in Game 3).
It's not how you start but how you finish. Colorado needs Compher to stay on track. His offensive surge will mitigate some of what the Avalanche lose in Kadri's absence, and Compher seems to recognize how he can improve too. He told reporters last week his game has been too defensive, and it's about being aggressive on the forecheck that's he's generating more opportunities.
All of Colorado will have to channel that mindset into attacking Tampa Bay's top talents. Compher will be counted on to lead the way.
Johnson is Colorado's longest-tenured player, going back to the 2010-11 season. He's seen some things with the Avalanche, and most of it wasn't pretty. There's been disappointment, underachievement, sweeping highs and grounding lows. And not just for the team. Johnson has struggled recently too, missing all but four games in 2020-21 because of a concussion. His playing days could have been over.
Now, at 34 years old, Johnson is a key cog in the Colorado machine that's reached a Cup Final. This opportunity will bring out the best in him.
The veteran has been paired this season with 20-year-old Bowen Byram, and together their postseason performances have been particularly strong. The Avs have about double the scoring chances compared to opponents when the pair is on the ice. They also own the second-highest goal share of any defensive pairing in the postseason.
Johnson scored a critical goal for the Avalanche in Game 4 against St. Louis. Coach Jared Bednar said after that series these might be Johnson's strongest performances since he arrived behind the bench in 2016.
Being a vocal leader is another of Johnson's more intangible attributes. He not only helps anchor the blue line but is a steadying presence on a relatively young team with sparser postseason experience than the Lightning. When the puck drops in this Final, count on Johnson to give everything he has to Colorado's cause.
Lehkonen has built his reputation on a high-end defensive skill set that allows him to play in any situation. In the playoffs specifically, he's carved out a more offensive role as a second-line skater first with Mikko Rantanen and Kadri and then Andre Burakovsky following Kadri's injury.
Through three rounds, Lehkonen leads the Avalanche with three game-winning goals -- and none were bigger than his overtime tally in Game 4 against Edmonton that sent Colorado to the Cup Final. Lehkonen has also been filling in for Kadri on Colorado's top power-play unit, which went 2-for-2 in Game 4. Coincidence? Maybe not. Lehkonen can elevate players around him like that. It's part of what makes him so special.
There's so much to like about Lehkonen as a high-character piece of Colorado's lineup. And this will be the second consecutive year Lehkonen has played in a Cup Final. That experience is invaluable considering most of the Avalanche haven't advanced this far before.