DENVER– The Colorado Avalanche couldn’t ask for a better opponent than the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final, in a sense.
“To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best, and these guys are defending back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, so we’re excited,” captain Gabriel Landeskog said Sunday. “It’ll be a good matchup.”
The Avalanche made the Cup Final by sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final with a 6-5 overtime win in Game 4 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on June 6.
They didn’t know their opponent until five days later, when the Lightning eliminated the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final with a 2-1 win in Game 6 at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Saturday
Game 1 of the best-of-7 series will be Wednesday at Ball Arena in Denver (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ABC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
“Obviously, they’re a really good team,” Avalanche defenseman Bowen Byram said. “They’ve won back-to-back Stanley Cups. But we’re confident in ourselves as well. We have a really good team. It’s not easy to get to the Cup Final.
“Like ‘Gabe’ said, we’re excited for the matchup. They’re a really good team, and we’re going to have to play our best to beat them. But we’re excited for that challenge.”
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The Avalanche are 12-2 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and have not trailed in a series. They swept the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference First Round and defeated the St. Louis Blues in six games in the second round before sweeping the Oilers.
But they have not faced a team like the Lightning, who defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round and swept the Florida Panthers in the second round before eliminating the Rangers.
“The experience they have is invaluable at this time of year, and I think they find ways to step up at this point in the season,” Landeskog said. “And when playoffs roll around, they’ve been able to turn it on. Regular season, there’s been times when they’ve struggled and whatnot, but come this time, everybody just steps up.
“They’re a deep team. They’re good from the back end all the way up. Obviously, a good goalie and strong on special teams — all those things. No team makes it to this point without having kind of all those things. So, they’ve got a lot of things going for them, but so do we, so it’ll be a fun series.”
Avalanche coach Jared Bednar gave a similar scouting report.
“Real deep team,” Bednar said. “Highly committed team on the defensive side of things. Dangerous offensively. Great goaltending. I mean, they’re back where they are for a reason, right? So, this is a very difficult team to win against, and we have to be ready for the challenge.”
Bednar said the Avalanche must play to their identity, and it must start with their skating. They will have to get the puck into the offensive end, then get it through the Tampa Bay shot-blockers and then get it past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“He’s big,” Landeskog said. “He’s mobile. He makes good reads. Seems like he’s a calm goalie that makes the stops he needs to make. Obviously being in the West, them being in the East, you don’t see him a whole lot during the year. On TV, you only see so much. But yeah, best goalie in the League.”
The Avalanche have had time to rest, reset and build toward the Cup Final. They traveled home Tuesday, took Wednesday off, and skated Thursday and Friday at their practice rink in Centennial, Colorado. After taking Saturday off, they skated hard on Sunday at Ball Arena.
Bednar said it was businesslike in the locker room.
“Everyone’s already wanting information and absorbing information,” Bednar said. “We’re having conversations around our room about how we go about beating the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“So, we had our day or two to relax, and then we’ve come back to work and gradually got a little bit more intense in every practice. We talk to our guys about making sure that we’re competing hard against one another , so we’re ready to go, just like we were for the last few series.
“I’ve liked the work that we’ve put in, so just kind of continuing with the process of what we need to do to be successful against anybody.”
Bednar said the Lightning are the team after which every other team is trying to model itself, winning the Cup, staying among the best teams in the NHL, and proving themselves again and again. This matchup gives the Avalanche a chance to prove themselves.
“The way I look at is, if you want to be best, you have to expect to be able to beat the best, so that’s them, and we’re ready for the challenge,” Bednar said. “We’re getting ready for the challenge. You know it’s going to be a long, hard-fought series and two great teams going at it, and we’re confident in what we do, and likewise, I’m sure they are too, being back here again.”