The 10 most pivotal players in the Stanley Cup Final
- Kristen Shilton is a national NHL reporter for ESPN.
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.
Anthony Cirelli, C, Lightning
It’s not about what Cirelli puts on the scoresheet. It’s how he keeps other players off it.
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.
J.T. Compher, LW, Avalanche
There is a Nazem Kadri-sized hole in Colorado’s ranks. Compher will be relied upon to help fill it.
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.
Erik Johnson, D, Avalanche
Here we have the quintessential playoff X factor.
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.
Artturi Lehkonen, LW, Avalanche
The versatile Lehkonen was a perfect trade deadline addition by Colorado GM Joe Sakic. This postseason has only highlighted how seamlessly Lehkonen has fit into the Avalanche’s system.
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.
Nathan MacKinnon, C, Avalanche
We’re not talking about all the top-tier players in this series. A few are simply unavoidable, though.
This is a monumental moment for MacKinnon. That Western Conference finals matchup against Connor McDavid had more hype than heat. The Cup Final is another beast entirely, especially when it features the likes of, oh, Nikita Kucherov for example? Talk about spicy. And MacKinnon will be motivated to show out once again.
The top-flight forward has 11 goals and 18 points in 14 games thus far. MacKinnon has proved he can dominate by himself (see: coast-to-coast goal-scoring ability in Game 5 against St. Louis). He can produce in the clutch (see: the game-tying goal in Game 4 against Edmonton). Crucially though, MacKinnon has improved his defensive habits in the postseason.
Regardless of the opponent, MacKinnon is prioritizing details in his own end to make good passes, break out quickly and limit the other team’s cycle game. The Avalanche will look for more of that from him in the Cup Final. Because when a player like MacKinnon is dialed in on defense, it rubs off on everyone else.
And of course, MacKinnon is going to score goals. Whether it’s a few or many, much of Colorado’s offense flows through its best players. The X factor with MacKinnon is his all-around expertise. He’s no one-note wonder.
Cale Makar, D, Avalanche
Yes, it’s another Avalanche star on the list. Like MacKinnon, Makar’s importance to Colorado is hard to overstate. And Makar is not just an X factor, he is the factor. As in, he factors into just about everything the Avalanche do.
The 23-year-old has logged over 27 minutes per game in the postseason. He’s out there at 5-on-5, on the power play and penalty kill. Makar is an elite defensive presence in all situations, no matter the score or scenario. Oh, and he’s scored five goals and recorded 22 points in 14 games. The totality of Makar’s ability is why he’s so often compared to Bobby Orr. It’s rare for any skater to have Makar-level influence at both ends of the ice. Yet, he does so consistently.
Makar will certainly be a handful for the Lightning, and vice versa. Tampa is the best team Colorado has seen so far. They Avalanche are deep, talented and experienced. Makar has created a lot of space for himself and his teammates in the playoffs; the Lightning are more likely to limit that advantage. It will be on Makar to elevate once more. Keeping the puck away from Tampa Bay’s top producers and in the Avalanche’s hands will be paramount.
Really though, when a player does as much as Makar, every shift he takes could be a potential swing in Colorado’s favor.
Ryan McDonagh, D, Lightning
Tampa Bay had to go about 13 minutes without McDonagh in Game 5 against New York after the veteran defender left with an injury.
When he came back, it was with about five minutes to play in regulation. The Lightning players said they felt a boost from McDonagh’s return — and it was right after that return that the Lightning rallied to score the game-winning goal.
McDonagh could have sat out those last few minutes in the dressing room. He could have saved himself for the next game. That’s not what McDonagh does. Lightning coach Jon Cooper calls him the team’s “warrior.” Encapsulating McDonagh’s importance can’t be quantified or qualified on numbers alone.
It’s all the little — and not-so-little — things McDonagh brings which will create potential havoc for Colorado. McDonagh is a shot-blocking machine (averaging 7.44 blocks per 60 minutes) and a physical force (registering 4.22 hits per game) that’s earned him accolades as a guy who never quits on his team. McDonagh has generated only four points in the postseason — one goal and three assists — but that hardly expresses his true value.
When Tampa Bay takes on Colorado, it will be facing a generational defensive talent in Makar. But don’t sleep on what players like McDonagh — and Johnson, for that matter — add to the mix. When you least expect it, one shift by McDonagh could turn the tide.
Ondrej Palat, LW, Lightning
As Lehkonen is to the Avs, so is Palat to the Lightning.
He too is drawn to scoring a dramatic, game-winning goal. And the Lightning wouldn’t be where they are without him.
Palat lifted Tampa Bay to its first win in the conference finals when he scored the go-ahead goal with 41.6 seconds remaining in regulation. It was a series-shifting score, giving the Lightning momentum they would never relinquish. Palat wasn’t done there, either. He scored the game winner in Game 5, with only 1:50 remaining in regulation.
Basically, if anyone’s going to put a dagger in Colorado, it’s likely to be Palat.
His heroics thus far have made Palat the first player in NHL history to score game-winning goals in the final two minutes of multiple games in one postseason. Not a bad distinction to hold.
There’s more to Palat than just timely goal scoring, of course. He’s averaging nearly a point-per-game pace in the postseason and skates nearly 17 minutes per contest. Palat’s been excellent at even strength as well, and leads the Lightning in shooting percentage. He is as well-rounded a forward as Colorado will see in this series. If Palat stays hot, he could be a true difference-maker.
Mikhail Sergachev, D, Lightning
To appreciate Sergachev’s ability to tilt the ice, look no further than Game 5 against New York.
Tampa Bay was trailing 1-0 in the second period, until Sergachev delivered his first goal of the postseason at a pivotal juncture for the Lightning. They would go into the third tied at 1-1, and it was Sergachev’s point blast that Palat tipped past Igor Shesterkin to give his team a crucial win.
We could wax poetic all day about Victor Hedman, and he would deserve it. Hedman has proved his game-changing value time and again, and he could be a key contributor in this Final.
Sergachev is more like the Lightning’s sneak attack. He slithers into the play and makes things happen. Tampa Bay wasn’t playing well early in Game 5. The team needed, well, an X factor to bust it out of a mini-slump. That’s what Sergachev provides. He may not do it every night, but he’s got game-changing capabilities.
It would be easy to look at this Cup Final from an offensive perspective and talk about the goal-scoring potential. But there’s a deep vein of defensive talent running through here as well. Sergachev plays over 21 minutes per game, with appearances on both special teams units. The more confidence Sergachev has gained in this postseason, the more apt Cooper has been to put him out there in critical moments. And when McDonagh exited in Game 5, Sergachev proved why he’s earned more responsibility by hanging in with Hedman and having the Lightning not miss a beat.
Sergachev will be playing with confidence going into the Cup Final. That could be spell trouble for the Avalanche.
Steven Stamkos, C, Lightning
There was a massive reunion for the Lighting against the Rangers, and Stamkos was (literally) at the center of it.
After Tampa Bay fell behind 2-0, Cooper put his captain back on a line with Kucherov and Palat. The results were quick, and pivotal.
It’s not a unit Cooper has deployed often. Stamkos centered that trio sparingly in the regular season and during that first round series against Toronto. Coming together again gave the Lightning a boost, and Stamkos looked particularly good. He registered three points in Tampa’s next three games, was excellent in all three zones and even dropped the gloves with Alexis Lafreniere at the end of Game 5. It felt like a whole new side of Stamkos was emerging.
Stamkos has been good for the Lightning throughout these playoffs. And obviously he’s one of their stars — just not in the same way Kucherov is. Stamkos is like an embodiment of all the experience Tampa Bay has earned over the past few years. He’s strategic. He’s even-keeled. He trusts in a skill set barely diminished by age and knows how to get the most out of himself and his teammates.
All these factors come together and make Stamkos the player who might lie in the weeds for a period or two and then come through with a gut punch to shift the ice for Tampa. That’s what the Lightning will need in this Cup Final. Stamkos won’t be an unexpected contributor, but he will be opportunistic. The way he conducts himself could be a defining influence in Tampa’s possible success.
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