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Tampa Bay Lightning to win

Game 1 is always a tricky one to pick. You’ve got the Avalanche on nine days rest, playing on home ice in the first Stanley Cup Final for this group. Then you’ve got the grizzled veteran Tampa Bay Lightning, coming off a rousing series win against the New York Rangers in which they rattled off four consecutive victories and have only had to wait since last weekend to get their next game.

There’s always a rest vs. rust debate, but I think the extra time off for the Avalanche was a good thing as it bought them some time to get everyone healthy, or at least closer to healthy. Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano have not yet been officially ruled out of Game 1 at this point. Those are two forwards that would help a lot. Goalie Darcy Kuemper is also available if head coach Jared Bednar chooses to put him in after not playing since Game 1 of the Western Conference Final.

That’s the good news for Colorado. The bad news is that the Lightning have been to the Stanley Cup Finals in each of the last two years, and that experience could be a big difference maker, especially with all the outside craziness that comes with a Cup Final, from media days to increased attention to the general excitement of being this close to the title.

If there’s one time for the Lightning to jump on Colorado’s inexperience in this situation, it’s this game. The Avs have not yet played a goaltender of the quality of Andrei Vasilevskiy, and he has run through three excellent offensive teams in Toronto, Florida and New York in the first three rounds. He should be a major factor in this game, but it’s also important to note that the Lightning have lost two of their first three Game 1s in these playoffs. Vasilevskiy has appeared in 13 Stanley Cup Final games in his career, owns a .925 save percentage and has allowed two or fewer goals in seven of those games. He has never allowed more than four in a single start in the final.

Another reason I think the Lightning have a good chance to win this game is the way their defence has played collectively. They’ve owned the puck in their recent series and have suffocated teams that like to play with speed. They neutralized the Rangers’ team speed over Games 3-6 in the last series and, although Colorado is even faster, I think that Rangers series gave Tampa a blueprint to success. They might be able to catch Colorado wide-eyed in this one.

Total goals: Under 6

We have two of the elite offensive teams in the league in this series and that certainly leaves open the possibility that the Finals will be high scoring. However, the Lightning seemed to find their defensive rhythm in the last series against New York and I think if they play that way, goals are going to be harder to come by.

On top of that, the Avs are going to be able to control the puck more than New York was able to, which should also limit the Lightning’s chances. The goaltending in this series significantly favours Tampa, but I don’t think Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz are going to play poorly for the Avs, either.

Both these teams will likely be feeling each other out in Game 1, especially early on, which will keep this a lower scoring affair.

Steven Stamkos anytime goal scorer

Stamkos is a special player, and this season has been a reminder of why he can be one of the league’s very best. He had a career year with 106 points including 42 goals – his sixth 40-plus goal season of his career. In these playoffs, he’s already put up 15 points in 17 games, three off his career best postseason total.

With nine goals in these playoffs, Stamkos has already set the high-water mark for his career in the postseason. After missing almost all of the playoffs in Tampa’s first run, he had 18 points in their last run and is actually playing even better this year. Stamkos had five goals in the series against the Rangers and comes into the Cup Final red hot. I’ll stick with the roll he’s on.

Nathan MacKinnon anytime goal scorer

Every player on the Avalanche roster is hungry for the Stanley Cup, but there’s something about the way MacKinnon has played throughout the postseason that makes you believe he might want it more than anyone else. He has 11 goals and 18 points through 14 games of this postseason and has been playing some of the best hockey of his career.

He had goals in three of the four games against Edmonton and has scored in eight of his 14 games in these playoffs. While I think some of the Avalanche players could be deer in headlights going head-to-head with the champs, I don’t think MacKinnon will be one of them. He’s played with such aggression, power and precision in these playoffs that he looks ready to take a series over if he has to. The Lightning will have to do everything in their power to not let him get hot.