Hockey being what it is, mostly weird and random, rarely throws up the two best teams in the NHL’s showpiece, the Stanley Cup Final. Sometimes we get close, and most seasons it’s actually hard to decipher who are clearly the best teams. With shootouts and overtime goofiness affecting the standings, injuries, differing schedules and divisions, and varying levels of give-o-shit throughout the interminable season, what the NHL usually provides is a small group of teams at the top that can all argue they are the best. And even when you get past that, the playoffs themselves throw up all sorts of nearly impossible obstacles to get a truly primetime matchup in the Final, be it a goalie channeling mutantdom or a series of officials with a gripe or just a couple weird bounces off the boards or chipped ice.
And even more rarely, hardly ever, does the NHL get something like what starts tonight. A Stanley Cup Final between the current standard-bearer, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the team that certainly positions itself as NEXT, the Colorado Avalanche. While there have been really good matchups in the preceding decade (Hawks-Bruins in 2013 leaps to mind) few have come with this heavy of a feeling on top of it. You’d probably have to go back to the back-to-back Penguins-Red Wings tilts of 2008 and 2009. That definitely had an old guard-new hotness feel to it, especially as the Penguins overturned the result of 2008 the following year. And eventually, the Pens did turn into an era-defining team, it just took them another seven years to do so.
And the Wings weren’t twice-defending champs. This feels even more like Oilers-Islanders from the early 80s, though thanks to the salary cap it’s going to be awfully hard for the Avs to pile up multiple championships as the Oilers eventually did after usurping the four-time defending champion Isles. Still, however this Final goes, the Avs will still be sporting Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar for a while. That’s a good start.
But for them to rise to where they’ve seemed destined to be the past two years, they only have to get past the most seasoned and ruthless playoff team the NHL has seen in some time. The Lightning didn’t blink when down 3-2 to the Leafs, nor when they were down 2-0 in both series and Game 3 to the Rangers. It’s hard to remember that they were inches from going out in the first round, Game 6 went to OT after all, and yet we don’t think much of it because the Lightning don’t. It never seemed like they ever thought they were in danger, and basically because of that assuredness they never really were, whatever the scores and series said. We can’t really say that knocking out the Lightning is the hardest task in team sports right now, because we haven’t seen anyone do it in three seasons.
As for this series, the main question is how much anyone thinks the advantages the Avs have at even-strength and through the lineup, and they do, is outweighed by the enormous advantage the Lightning have in net. Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t lost a playoff series in his last 11 tries, and the Avs will either be rocking Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz, neither of whom had been the author of a playoff series win until this season. It’s the hockey equivalent of Drederick Tatum v. Homer Simpson, or close to it.
And the advantages the Avs have at evens aren’t all that big on paper. Over the course of the season, these two teams were basically identical in analytics (52.9 xG percentage for the Avs, 53.2 for the Bolts, 54.0-51.8 the other way in Corsi). But as the playoffs have unfolded, the Lightning have looked a little susceptible at times, if only to lull an opponent into a false sense of security possibly, to teams that can scorch through the neutral zone. The Rangers built a 2-0 lead by getting out of their zone as quickly as possible and in as straight of a line as possible into the Bolts’. The Maple Leafs did too early in that series. Outside of Victor Hedman, the Lightning blue line can be awfully slow. There’s no one faster and more direct than the Avs.
In both of those series, the Lightning were able to change gears, install a trap, turn the neutral zone into a construction zone, and nullify the advantage the Leafs and Rangers had gained. Perhaps the Lightning’s greatest strength is that they can do whatever is necessary to win a series given whatever is in front of them. But the trap and gum-things-up method won’t work as easily, if at all, against the Avs. Because they have Cale Makar, who can bust a trap all by himself. So can Devon Toews, though he is partnered with Makar. Could we see Avs coach Jared Bednar split them up to give the Avs a trap-buster on the ice for 45 minutes a night? It’s an option. Third-pairing young gun Bowen Byram is also designed to be something of the same thing, though it’s an awful lot to ask of a 21-year-old with 49 regular season games of experience.
For the Avs, they won’t be so lucky in that the opposing coach isn’t going to be asleep at the switch as Edmonton’s Jay Woodcroft was for most of the conference final. Even at home and with last change, Woodcroft was all too happy to toss out Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl against the Avs’ best players, though perhaps that was because he had no other line that could get within missile distance of MacKinnon. The Lightning do, and especially when the series shifts to Tampa, Erik and Jack Johnson can expect to see a lot of Stamkos and Kucherov all up in their shit.
Or it could be Brayden Point and Kucherov, as Point returns to the lineup tonight after being out since Game 7 against the Leafs and extends the Lightning forward corps even further. What Point can provide is unknown — he’s missed a month and may not be 100 percent, but he’s still Brayden Point. Even if he is centering the third line, as he was in practice, that’s a pretty ridiculous weapon to have there.
The Avs themselves are hoping for a glorious injury return from Nazem Kadri, who could reappear in the middle of the series. Even if his thumb injury renders him unable to shoot, he’s still one of the most annoying checking centers to play against in the league and would be a serious headache for either Stamkos or Point, and free up MacKinnon.
What we can say for sure is that this is probably the best collection of talent to appear in the Final in a very long time. Again, probably since that Hawks-Bruins Final which featured seven or eight future Hall of Famers (and one current one in Marian Hossa). The Lightning may salivate at seeing whatever whosits in goal for the Avs and go hell-bent for leather, thinking Vasilevskiy will always come out ahead in a shootout. The Avs may see their eyes go big at the thought of getting space to the outside of the likes of Bogosian, an aging and hurt Ryan McDonagh, and the decidedly just-a-guy Jan Rutta. We won’t know what kind of pivot point in the league’s history this will be for some time. What we do know is that this series is going to be an utter blast.