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Roundtable: Stanley Cup Final surprises; under-the-radar players

burakovsky game 6

DENVER, CO - JUNE 15: Colorado Avalanche left wing Andre Burakovsky (95) warm ups before game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena in Denver, Colorado, on June 15, 2022. (Photo by Mark Stahl/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What has been the biggest surprise for you through three games of the Stanley Cup Final?

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: I was a bit surprised how flip-flopped Game 3 was to Games 1 and 2, where we saw a Colorado domination. Was it the home ice advantage and Jon Cooper getting that last change and his preferred matchups? After being unable to get close to Darcy Kuemper through two games, the Lightning nearly lived there Monday night. They also prevented Colorado from testing Andrei Vasilevskiy at even strength. Shot attempts were kept to the perimeter -- much like what the Avalanche did to Tampa Bay to start the series.

We know the Lightning are a well-coached team and have a roster of players capable of winning this series. But to see how much the Avalanche struggled in Game 3 was eye-opening and makes me eager to see what adjustments Jared Bednar makes for Game 4 to head home with a 3-1 series lead.

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: The biggest surprise has to be the play of Valeri Nishushkin. The Colorado winger has been a huge force this series, scoring in all three games, although his goal in Game 3 was called back due to an offside. Nichushkin has played 18:55 per game and they have been most effective minutes. Nichoshkin could be the most valuable player thus far in the Stanley Cup Final and if anyone saw that coming, kudos to you.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I’m surprised by a specific facet of the Lightning’s turnaround against the Avalanche from Games 1 and especially 2 to Game 3. The Lightning only partially slowed down the Avalanche’s transition machine, yet they absolutely flipped high-danger chances. As much as people view the Lightning as hockey chameleons who can adapt to any style, it sure seems like their main adaptation lately has been “grinding things to a halt.” While there are some similarities here, this really has been a testament to Tampa Bay’s versatility.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: The biggest surprise for me is the way the goaltending situation has (mostly played out). Andrei Vasilevskiy looked human through the first two games, and Tampa Bay was not able to take advantage of Darcy Kuemper in those games. The one big, decisive advantage that existed within these two teams was not exploited by the team that had the advantage. Now, granted, that did change in Game 3, and I feel that it could still play an impact through the remainder of this series (and I do think it is still going seven games) but the way it all started off was definitely a surprise for me. I guess the way Games 1 and 2 went was more of a testament to how dominant Colorado can be that the goaltending edge did not even really matter. It still might, though. This Tampa Bay team is tough to knock out.

[Stanley Cup Playoffs 2022 schedule, TV info]

2022 NHL Stanley Cup Final - Game Three

Mark LoMoglio/NHLI via Getty Images

NHLI via Getty Images

Which player in the series has been under the radar?

Michael Finewax, NBC Sports Edge Senior Hockey Writer/Editor: I really should go back to Nichushkin here as well but I will go with the play of Anthony Cirelli. The Tampa Bay center was amazing in the pivotal Game 3, playing 19:55 while scoring the Lightning’s first goal of the game to tie the score at one. Cirelli is an underrated bottom-six forward in Tampa Bay but he has three points in the Final and is always a pest up front.

Adam Gretz, NHL writer: Brandon Hagel has been an intriguing one for me all postseason. Tampa Bay paid such a high price for him, and there were all of the Blake Coleman comparisons, but I just do not see Blake Coleman 2.0 here. I am not saying Hagel has been bad. His defensive numbers and impacts seem fine, but there is just no offense coming from here and that was a big selling point for him at the trade deadline. It was inevitable that shooting percentage he had early on with Chicago was going to regress and we would see what type of player he would be. That happened, and I am not sure I see the impact yet.

James O’Brien, NHL writer: I think Nathan MacKinnon’s dynamic play slips under the radar because of a lack of goals so far; one can even imagine an especially lazy hot-taker slamming MacKinnon for that and his -2 rating in Game 3. MacKinnon shrugged off the lack of goals, and with good reason: he’s been a physical force. Through the first three games, MacKinnon’s fired 14 shots on goal, and aside from some bumpy Game 3 moments, has been tilting the ice in Colorado’s favor to an impressive degree. Every now and then, there are shades of the Nathan MacKinnon who struggled to actually finish the many chances he created earlier in his career, but I wager when the dam breaks, a ton of goals will come.
If that’s not an exotic enough answer, how about the striking offensive aggression of ... Josh Manson? It’s not just the Game 2 goal; since coming to Colorado, he’s been much more assertive offensively, including pinching aggressively. That’s really a positive and negative thing, honestly, because there are times when maybe Manson shouldn’t be taking chances.

Sean Leahy, NHL writer: He was a punchline for a long time in this league but Jack Johnson has been solid in a pairing with Manson this series. At 5-n-5, he’s a positive possession player and has been on the ice for only one goal against. The pair has been good at suppressing shots and not allowing many high-danger chances on Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz.