The salary cap era of the NHL has produced a litany of playoff upsets throughout the years that have robbed us of many marquee championship matchups, but not this year. The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs have two teams left standing, the Colorado Avalanche from the Western Conference and the Tampa Bay Lightning from the Eastern Conference. Two teams of this caliber and star power rarely see each other in the season's final series.
This is the kind of series the NHL has been dying to see on its biggest stage. Two heavyweights, going toe-to-toe to determine who's the best. This matchup is, at least on paper, the best Final we've had in years. Personally, I feel this Final is the best matchup since Chicago and Boston during the shortened 2013 season.
But what's at stake, and why should you care about Avalanche-Lightning for the Stanley Cup?
The stars in this series are unreal. The Avalanche boast a superstar center in Nathan Mackinnon, a Norris Trophy candidate in Cale Makar, and a bevy of star-level talent throughout their lineup (Nazem Kadri, Mikko Rantanen, Devon Toews, and more). On the other side, the Lightning boast a former Hart Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov, a Norris Trophy-winning defender in Victor Hedman, the best goaltender on the planet in Andrei Vasilevskiy, and an envious group of star talent (Brayden Point, Steven Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, and more).
Potential History-Making vs. Dethroning the Unbeatable
On one side, you have potential history in the making with the Lightning. Tampa Bay is the two-time defending champion — only the second team in the salary cap era to achieve this feat — and has won 11 consecutive playoff series, which is third-most all-time. They are now attempting to become the first team since the 1980s New York Islanders to win three Cups in a row. They want to solidify themselves as this era's first true dynasty.
On the other side, you have the loaded and hungry Avalanche hoping to open their championship window and dethrone a team that hasn't lost a playoff series in 1,156 days. Colorado's ascension has been expected, but past playoff failures delayed their arrival until this season. However, make no mistake—the Avalanche have been dominant in the years leading up to this championship meeting.
The Matchups are Tantalizing
Makar vs. Hedman is the marquee ticket for the series. Two of the best defensemen in the world, going toe-to-toe at their peak for all the marbles. Makar is a bonafide game-breaker every time he touches the puck. His silky-smooth skating, explosive speed, and bomb of a shot make him the most dynamic and dangerous defender in the league. Hedman is the best two-way defenseman in the NHL, his positioning, poise, intelligence, and versatility in all three zones make him a nightmare for teams to handle.
Mackinnon vs. Kucherov would be the marquee matchup in any other Final if the previous two weren't involved. These forwards dictate everything when they're on the ice, and they embody two distinctly different styles of hockey. Mackinnon is a gifted speed demon who can beat teams in various ways. He can deke around, race past, or power through you at will. Kucherov is a silent assassin, capable of taking over a game at any moment with his shifty skating, world-class passing, and deceptive shot. He's also only the third player in NHL history (behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux) to register back-to-back 30+ point postseasons.
Vasilevskiy vs. Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz will be an interesting battle throughout the series. Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender on the planet, especially in the postseason, and he poses the biggest challenge to Colorado's ascension as champions. Vasilevskiy enters the Stanley Cup Final with a .928 save percentage and a 2.27 goals-against average. He struggled early this postseason but bounced back with a vengeance after Game 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. Kuemper and Francouz will tackle the netminding duties for Colorado and pose the juggernaut Avalanche's biggest weakness. If Kuemper is healthy, he will start, but the drop-off to Francouz is minimal. However, neither goaltender has been especially strong this postseason, with Kuemper sporting a .897 save percentage and a 2.65 goals-against average and Francouz having a .906 save percentage and a 2.86 goals-against average.
This leads to two interesting points for this series and something that will be fascinating to watch. Colorado obliterated the Western Conference en route to the Final, but they faced weak teams and goaltenders in every round, while the Lightning has gone through a gauntlet of teams to make it back to the Final, but they've yet to face a team as deep and talented as the Avalanche. Which one will hold more water as the series progresses?
No team defends like Tampa Bay does, signified by the fact they shut down the two top-scoring offenses in the NHL in back-to-back rounds (Toronto and Florida). Toronto managed to force the Lightning into a track meet early in their series, but as the series dragged on, the Maple Leafs' offense dried up when they needed it most. Against Florida, the Lightning put on a clinic—holding the Presidents' Trophy winners to three goals in four games.
The Avalanche are deep at forward and aren't afraid of high-scoring games—they thrive in them. Colorado was the fourth highest-scoring offense during the regular season and has leveraged that in every series as they've outscored their defensive and goaltending problems against the likes of Nashville, St. Louis, and Edmonton. However, they've yet to face a team as cohesive and resilient as the Lightning, and it'll be interesting to see how Colorado handles adversity in this series because Tampa Bay will make them fight for every inch of ice.
Conversely, the Lightning hasn't faced a team as deep or fast as Colorado. To make things even more interesting, the Avalanche have upped their scoring even more during the postseason. Vasilevskiy will be the main factor if Tampa Bay can slow down Colorado's offensive onslaught.
The Bottom Line
Regardless if you're a seasoned NHL fan or someone who's never watched a single hockey game in your life, this is a series you cannot afford to miss. These are the two best teams in the NHL, and they have been for a long time. Tampa Bay is the gold standard, the two-time champion looking for a three-peat. Colorado has dominated the regular season but hasn’t gotten over the hump to plant their flag atop hockey's mountaintop of great teams. Now, they have that chance.
When it's all said and done, this series is likely to go down in history as one of the most electric and entertaining Stanley Cup Finals in recent memory.
Here's hoping it goes to seven!