The NHL playoffs, which didn’t feature the Golden Knights for the first time in five seasons, have the potential for an awe-inspiring finish.
Will the Tampa Bay Lightning rally from a 2-0 deficit in the Stanley Cup Final to win their third straight championship and become the first team since the salary cap started to achieve that feat? Or will the Colorado Avalanche, coming off a seven-goal game, end that run and start one of their own?
The Knights, preseason favorites with the Avs to win the title, can only watch with envy. But that doesn’t mean watching the finals can’t be productive.
Here are three lessons the Knights can learn from the Avalanche and Lightning:
1. Special teams can make the difference
Colorado is the only team that has dominated the playoffs at five-on-five.
The Avalanche’s plus-20 goal differential there is by far the best in the postseason. The Panthers are second at plus-4. That means for everyone besides Colorado, special teams have to make an impact.
All eight teams that made the second round finished in the top nine in special teams goal differential in the regular season. The Avalanche were fourth, and Tampa Bay was tied for seventh.
The Knights have a ways to go to catch up. They were tied for 21st in special teams goal differential because of their 25th-ranked power play and 21st-ranked penalty kill.
A priority for new coach Bruce Cassidy is turning both units around. He had success in his previous stop in Boston, where the Bruins’ power play and penalty kill ranked third in the NHL during his tenure.
“In Bruce’s case, the penalty kill and the power play consistently have been very, very good for a long period of time,” Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said. “That is really important to us.”
2. Depth up the middle is crucial
The Lightning were without their No. 1 center in the second and third rounds and went 8-2.
Losing Brayden Point to a lower-body injury in Game 7 of the first round against Toronto could have been a dispiriting blow to Tampa Bay. Instead, the team kept rolling.
Captain Steven Stamkos, fifth-place Selke Trophy finisher Anthony Cirelli and trade-deadline acquisition Nick Paul kept the Lightning formidable at center before Point returned against the Avalanche.
The same is true of Colorado, which lost No. 2 center Nazem Kadri to a hand injury in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. Third-line center J.T. Compher scored a goal that night, then assisted on left wing Andre Burakovsky’s overtime winner in Game 1 against Tampa Bay.
The Knights have been held back by their center depth at times, but enter 2022-23 as strong as they’ve been up the middle. That’s in part because of the addition of center Jack Eichel in November. He has 153 goals and 380 points in 409 games but has never reached the playoffs.
“Jack Eichel, he’s a guy that’s a high-end hockey player that’s still learning how to win and play the right way, so to speak,” Cassidy said.
3. Be patient and adaptable
Both teams have had their ups and downs.
The Lightning lost the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, missed the 2017 playoffs and were swept out of the first round after winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2019. Yet Stamkos, coach Jon Cooper and core pieces such as forwards Nikita Kucherov, Alex Killorn and Ondrej Palat, defenseman Victor Hedman and goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy remain.
Colorado finished with 48 points — seven fewer than last-place Montreal did this season — in coach Jared Bednar’s first season. The Avalanche lost in the second round three straight times from 2019 to 2021. Yet Bednar, captain Gabriel Landeskog, Compher, Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Samuel Girard and Erik Johnson stayed in place.
Both clubs benefited from continuity and grace after rough stretches. It’s a lesson the Knights could carry into next season. They missed the playoffs, but still have many of the core pieces that have given them the second-most postseason wins in the NHL since they entered the league.
“You want expectations,” Cassidy said. “We’re all aware they’re out there, and we’re here to fulfill them.”