Expectations for the Colorado Avalanche have not diminished since the start of the playoffs.
They were favored to win the Western Conference and reach the Stanley Cup Final, and now that they're here, oddsmakers think they have an edge over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have won the last two finals. The Avalanche will need to overcome a long layoff to live up to the mantra of being -180 favorites on FanDuel Sportsbook in a highly anticipated series that begins Wednesday night in Denver.
“We just have to put our focus on our group,” said winger Andre Burakovsky, who won the Cup with Washington in 2018. “We’re not going to focus on the outside of we are the favorites or underdog or anything like that. We’re here to play our game, find our own success and not try to focus too much on the outside (elements) that we can’t control.”
One of those elements is the schedule. After sweeping Edmonton in the West final, Colorado is going more than a week between games.
The eight days between series is slightly longer than the game-less span the Avalanche had after sweeping Nashville before facing St. Louis in the second round. Coach Jared Bednar and his staff have attempted to balance rest and competitive practices to keep the juices flowing knowing what's coming. Players insist they will be ready.
“At this point of the year, it’s not very hard to get up for the games,” winger Mikko Rantanen said. “It’s the finals, so it doesn’t matter if it would be a 40-day break — I think everybody will be mentally ready to play.”
Rantanen added the layoff is not an excuse and that “it's every individual's responsibility to be ready.” Bednar is chiefly responsible for setting the practice schedule and putting players in the best position to win.
“I feel good about getting a couple of days away from the rink to get sort of decompressed and then start gearing things up a little bit,” Bednar said. “It’s doesn’t feel like it’s too much time. I like the focus of our group, I like the work of our group.”
The Avs are without injured forwards Nazem Kadri and Andrew Cogliano, who Bednar on Sunday wouldn't rule out.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper over the weekend said it was likely top center Brayden Point, who has been out a month since getting injured in Game 7 of the first round against Toronto, will play at some point during the final.
The Avalanche finished off the Oilers without Kadri and starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who backed up Pavel Francouz in the series-clinching victory. Bednar isn't tipping his hand on which goalie will start Game 1, and players know they have to keep up a certain level of play if Kadri remains out.
“We know Naz is a great player for us and brings a lot, especially on the offensive side, and even defensively he plays responsibly," Rantanen said. "(We) try to play our own game and not think about too much. We obviously hope that Naz can play and he’s been looking good, so I don’t know.”
Burakovsky is back after missing time from blocking a shot with his left leg in the series opener against the Oilers. Having the extra time off allows Colorado — which will be without top-four defenseman Samuel Girard because of a broken sternum — to get Burakovsky and others closer to 100% at a time of year when few players are fully healthy.
It also helps to have a player like Burakovsky around who has won the Cup, and while he's not looking back too much to five years ago and the Capitals beating Tampa Bay on the way to the title, that experience is part of what gives him confidence. Even more of that confidence comes from what Colorado has done this season and on this run.
“We know what we can do as a group,” he said. "We showed it for previous years and this whole season and especially in the playoffs here that we have what it takes to win, and we’re just going to bring it out in this series, too.”
AP Sports Writers Arnie Stapleton in Denver and Fred Goodall in Tampa, Florida, contributed.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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