There is no Cinderella this year.
As the Tampa Bay Lightning go for their third consecutive Stanley Cup, which would make them just the fourth team in league history to do it, they face the best possible challenger the West could throw at them. If you thought the 2020 bubble win against Dallas was tainted (it wasn’t) due to the weird conditions, or that last season was an anti-climactic denouement against an overmatched Montreal Canadiens, the 2022 final is the ultimate test.
Colorado is the best team Tampa Bay has faced in any of these three finals — and, in fact, they may be the best team the Lightning have faced at any point during this three-year run.
The two teams got here in very different ways.
The Lightning are fresh off a six-game series win against New York in which they dropped the first two games. In that series, Tampa Bay started with nine days of rest while the Rangers arrived right after a long seven-game series over Carolina. The Lightning started slow and then figured it out.
If rest vs. rust was a factor at the start of that series, it may play a part again in the Cup Final.
When Game 1 hits, Tampa Bay will be working on three days rest, while Colorado will have had eight days off after sweeping Edmonton. The Avs had seven days off between their Round 1 and 2 series, then won Game 1 in overtime and never trailed their series against the Blues.
“It’s just a part of what we’re doing and the mindset we have is just being ready, staying ready,” Gabriel Landeskog said. “If we’re getting eight days off we’re getting eight days off and we’re gonna make sure we practise hard, rest up and are ready to go.”
Hockey fans everywhere are certainly ready to go for what, on paper, is shaping up to be the best Cup Final in a few years. It’s the team trying to three-peat versus the up-and-coming contender we’ve seen coming for years that has finally reached its peak.
Here’s how the two finalists stack up.
HEAD TO HEAD RECORD
What’s at stake for Colorado:
In 2016-17, the Avalanche had a horrendous season, one of the worst on record, finishing with 48 points in 82 games and then had horrible lottery luck, falling all the way to the fourth overall pick. No worries — they nabbed Cale Makar there. At the start of the next season they trade disgruntled centre Matt Duchene for a whopper of a return that included defenceman Sam Girard and a first-round draft pick that turned into Bowen Byram at fourth overall in 2019. And just like that, the Avs acquired half of their fully healthy top-six blue line.
It’s been a steady build up from there. Over the next years, Devon Toews was acquired for a couple of second-rounders and then blossomed into a Team Canada-type of defenceman. Nazem Kadri was brought in for Alex Kerfoot and Tyson Barrie and his impact as the 2C has been huge, with 2021-22 being his best performance yet. Darcy Kuemper was brought in to be the No. 1 goalie this season via trade. And there have been a number of solid “around the edges” additions as well, including Andre Burakovsky and this year’s in-season adds, Arturri Lehkonen and Josh Manson.
All the while, Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic resisted the urge to pay up at past deadlines for the biggest fish, such as Taylor Hall or Claude Giroux.
We’ve seen the Avs coming for a few years now and, after three consecutive second round losses, the 2022 team finally broke through, slashing their way through the Western Conference. What’s at stake now is to claim a Stanley Cup before all their star players sign new, expensive contracts that will make adding to the margins more of a challenge.
After this season, Nathan MacKinnon will have just one more season with a $6.3 million cap hit before he becomes eligible for unrestricted free agency and in line to be one of the league’s highest earners. Kuemper and Nazem Kadri will both be UFAs this summer and at least one could be priced out of town. Makar ($9 million) and Mikko Rantanen ($9.25 million) have already secured their pay days.
It’s not as though this should be Colorado’s only crack at the Cup — they still have a loaded roster and a GM who’s proven to be a great asset manager — but things will start to get tighter in the next season or two. The ages and contracts of this roster build are in the Goldilocks Zone right now so it’s imperative to finish the job before off-ice considerations pinch the outlook just a little.
What’s at stake for Tampa Bay:
The word “dynasty” can be thrown around a little easily in modern sports and that might be because we haven’t had many true historical ones in recent times. The NFL’s New England Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years in the early-2000s and another three in five years from 2014-18 and are one of the best examples of that — though some may even argue it.
In the NHL, both the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups in a six-year period over the past two-and-a-half decades and are the closest to a “dynasty” we’ve had in this sport since the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers won 14 of 15 Stanley Cups (five for Montreal and Edmonton, four for the Isles) between 1976 and 1990.
The Lightning can enter that type of stratosphere with a win in this series.
If they can beat Colorado four times, the Lightning will be the first NHL team to win three consecutive Stanley Cups since the Islanders’ four-peat from 1980-83. Since the turn of the millennium the Penguins (2016, 2017) and Lightning (2020, 2021) are the only two teams to win back-to-back titles.
The last teams in any of North America’s Big Four sports to win at least three titles in a row were the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers (2001, 2002, 2003) and MLB’s New York Yankees (1998, 1999, 2000).
It’s impressive enough for these Lightning to have a shot at a three-peat in an age of parity under a salary cap, and even moreso when you consider we’ve had a flat cap for a couple of years now, which leaves even less room to handle player raises and roster turnover. Lightning GM Julien BriseBois has done masterful work.
So too have the players, and it should also be acknowledged that while the past two seasons have sure been unusual (first a bubble playoffs and then a regionalized, 56-game calendar), that’s also been a unique challenge for the players to adapt to.
A Lightning win should secure them a dynasty status in NHL history. And they’ll still be a force next year, too.
Playoff 5-on-5 numbers via Natural Stat Trick
The Avs laid waste to the Western Conference in becoming the first team to win its regular season conference title and then reach the Stanley Cup Final since Chicago in 2013. It took Colorado just 14 playoff games to reach the Cup Final and they became just the eighth team since 1987 (when every playoff round became a best-of-7) to reach the fourth round with only two losses.
But, we should note, just three of those teams went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Colorado’s outlook is simply glowing. Defenceman Cale Makar leads the team with 22 points in 14 games and has the best points-per-game mark of any remaining player. He’s not been slowed at all in the playoffs and is now generating Bobby Orr vibes with his propensity to absolutely dominate and control the flow of play anywhere on the ice.
And, of course, you have Nathan MacKinnon, a bull of a player who is often forgotten in “best player in the world” conversations, but should be right in the mix. He, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog have been the young, maturing leaders on this team for some time and are 2-3-4 in scoring to this point, as you might expect.
But then you have Kadri, who has played with an edge that hasn’t crossed over to a suspension yet, which has been a troubling area for him in the past. Though he was injured in Game 3 of the West Final, he has not yet been ruled out even for Game 1 of the Cup Final. Devon Toews gets overshadowed by his defence partner, but is elite in his own right.
Folks, it keeps going. Artturi Lehkonen, who sent the Avs to the Cup Final with a Game 4 OT winner against Edmonton, is tied for the league lead with three game-winning goals this post-season. Late-bloomer Valeri Nichushkin is averaging over 20 minutes a night.
They’ve overcome losing Girard to injury all playoffs and then when Kuemper went down in Game 1 against Edmonton. Backup Pavel Francouz won every game he filled in for, and now it appears Kuemper will be an option again in the Final.
So, yeah, the Avs have a lot going for them and are the perfect challenger for the back-to-back champs. You can never count the Avs out and, though they have pulled off two sweeps to get here, they have proven an ability to fight back. Colorado has won six of the seven games in these playoffs where they allowed the game’s first goal, which is twice as many as the teams behind them and the only team with a better than .500 winning percentage in this scenario.
Tampa Bay’s outlook
Speaking of comeback teams, the Lightning are right there with the Avs. Tampa Bay trailed its opening round series to Toronto 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before pulling off the win, and then in the Eastern Conference Final they dropped the first two games against New York before winning four in a row.
As Justin Bourne wrote, the Lightning are masters at feeling out a series, adapting to what the other team is doing, and then putting the pedal down.
We know all about the stars atop their lineup.
Nikita Kucherov is the highest-scoring player left standing with 23 points and he has a chance to join Wayne Gretzky, Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy as the only players in league history to record at least 25 points in three consecutive post-seasons.
Steven Stamkos leads the Lightning with nine goals, while Victor Hedman logs over 24 minutes a night, has 14 points in 17 games and is also dominant in his own zone. Anthony Cirelli has been a shutdown machine facing some top competition all playoffs long and he’s been a key factor behind Tampa’s brilliance at 5-on-5.
Of course, you can’t talk about the Lightning without mentioning Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose performance in potential elimination games continues to be the stuff of legend. He outduelled Vezina favourite Igor Shesterkin in the last round and gets to the final with a .928 save percentage and 2.27 GAA. Vasilevskiy has every chance to win the Conn Smythe again with a strong finish in the final, and if he does, he’d be the first goalie to win it in back-to-back seasons since Bernie Parent in the 1970s.
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Colorado, win one for…Erik Johnson
The first overall pick in 2006 by St. Louis, Johnson didn’t play his first playoff game until his seventh season in the league and then didn’t play in his second post-season series until he was a 12-year veteran.
Colorado acquired the now-34-year-old Johnson in a 2011 mid-season trade for Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart and a draft pick. Johnson then had to endure some immediate tough times in Colorado though, as the team qualified for one playoffs in his first seven years with the team, and absolutely bottomed out in 2016-17.
It’s been a long time coming for Johnson, who is now averaging under 17 minutes per game playing next to Byram, acting as a leader and support for the younger and more dynamic defencemen in the lineup.
“You just never know when that opportunity is going to come,” Johnson said after the Western Conference Final series win. “It’s been 900 games, 15 years. I look at Bo and he’s got 30 games and one year and I’m like ‘you’re lucky man.’ I’m excited to have a chance.”
Tampa Bay, win one for…Corey Perry?
OK, look, I realize most hockey fans won’t be crossing their fingers for Perry here. And, yes, he has won a Stanley Cup in his career, with the Ducks as a sophomore in 2006-07. This is far from a Ray Bourque situation here.
But this is a back-to-back championship roster, so there aren’t a lot of Cup-less players. You might be inclined to put someone like Nick Paul here, a highly likeable worker of a player who has contributed greatly to this run. If you’re a Senators fan, I get pulling for him. But Paul is 27 years old, has been in the league just four full seasons and this is his first taste of the playoffs.
Perry gets the nod here because he took one year deals to join Dallas in 2019-20 and Montreal in 2020-21 and then reached the Final with both only to lose to these very Lightning. Can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That’s exactly what Perry did and you can bet the team will rally around getting him his second ring now.
Perry is the second player in league history to play in three consecutive Cup Finals with three different teams. Marian Hossa did it in 2008 with Pittsburgh (lost to Detroit), 2009 with Detroit (lost to Pittsburgh) and 2010 with Chicago (victorious).
Colorado X-Factor: Nazem Kadri
A bad hit from Evander Kane in the last round removed Kadri from the series in Game 3, but hasn’t ended his season yet. While Kadri required thumb surgery after the hit, the team hasn’t even ruled him out for Game 1 yet.
Whether he returns in Game 1 or later on in the series, Kadri is a vitally important player for the Avs, especially against a team as deep and talented as the Lightning. Kadri is coming off a career-best regular season and followed it up with a stellar playoff run, totalling 14 points in 13 games.
But it’s more than production. As the team’s second line centre, Kadri brings balance to the middle at the top of the lineup and gives no easy matchups for the opposition. At 5-on-5 — an area the Lightning thrive in — Kadri’s 62.29 Corsi For percentage is the best mark on the Avs, as is his 64.87 expected goal percentage. The Avs have actually outshot the competition 130-78 and outscored them 15-11 when Kadri has been on the ice at evens.
His return will be especially important if the Lightning get their only injured player back…
Tampa Bay X-Factor: Brayden Point
The question doesn’t seem to be if Point returns, but when.
“I don’t know about the probability of Game 1, but it’s extremely probable that he will play in the series,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after his team’s Game 6 win against New York.
Point hasn’t played since Game 7 of their Round 1 series against Toronto and the Lightning haven’t missed a beat, which says a lot about their depth, mindset and how they’re coached. But getting Point back now would be a huge boost to the roster and give them a lot of options in how to deploy their top-nine forwards.
Point has been one of Tampa’s best two or three players in their back-to-back Cup wins and if he’s going to return after the team went 8-2 without him, look out for what he could add.