We're three games into the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, and it's been a roller coaster of a series. The Colorado Avalanche leads the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lighting 3-1 after a dramatic Game 4 finish in Tampa. The Avalanche have gone blow for blow with the Lightning and have a chokehold on the series as the Final shifts back to Denver for Friday’s Game 5.
The Conn Smythe race is looking to wrap up as Colorado aims to secure their first championship in 21-tears. Currently, the race, in my mind, has four players realistically in the running. However, after Game 4, the race is mostly down to two players. Unless Tampa Bay makes a comeback for the ages, the Conn Smythe is going to be one of two Avalanche players.
1. Cale Makar
Makar is arguably the biggest game-breaker between both teams (and these teams have some huge game-breakers on their rosters), impacting the game in all three zones. Honestly, the gap between Makar and the next player on this list is massive in my eyes—and the second player on this list has been unreal in his own right. His offensive brilliance is blatantly clear, but his defensive play has been near immaculate through the series' first two games. He leads all active players in points (27) in the playoffs; he holds the Avalanche's record for most points by a defenseman in a postseason—mind you, he's done this in only 18 games so far.
Makar is unbelievable to watch—the dynamism he brings on every shift can alter a game in a blink. He's quickly earning the title of most complete defenseman in the NHL, and he's doing it against a team with Victor Hedman. Look at this shorthanded goal in Game 2; it's a thing of beauty from start to finish.
Update - Post Game 3: Makar is still the front runner, but he had a dismal showing overall in Game 3. He still recorded two power-play points, but his defensive play left much to de desired as he and his defensive partner, Devon Toews, were victimized on three separate goals in Tampa Bay’s 6-2 rout.
Update - Post Game 4: Makar continues to be Colorado’s most impactful player throughout the series. He only registered one point in Game 4, but it was a crucial game-tying goal that gave Colorado life after a dismal first period. His skating and defensive play continue to give Tampa Bay fits. Most importantly, he’s continued to elevate his game at crucial moments.
2. Nathan MacKinnon
MacKinnon is the best forward on arguably the best team in the league and the likely new champion. He embodies everything Colorado wants to do offensively; fast, aggressive, tenacious, and has the finishing ability that rivals anyone at the top echelon of the NHL. Sure, he'll be mentioned in passing as one of the better forwards in the league, but these playoffs, he's been unreal for Colorado. 21 points through 18 games, 12 of those being goals (the most of any player left in the playoffs) and the de facto leader on the ice. It feels like he is criminally underrated by many in the league.
MacKinnon has ascended to a different plane of existence these playoffs. However, he's elevated himself even more in the Final. Through the first four games, the Avalanche have out-attempted (87-45), outshot (31-25), generated more scoring chances (41-27), broken even in high danger chances (13-13), and have generated an expected goals rate of 56 percent with MacKinnon on the ice. That’s pretty darn dominant, folks.
What else can you ask of MacKinnon? He's playing like a man possessed by one goal—to hoist the Stanley Cup. The only knock against him? He plays on a team with Makar, who has been flat-out better in all aspects.
Update - Post Game Game 3: MacKinnon registered six shots on goal but failed to gain a single point in Colorado’s 6-2 loss. He utilized his speed well to create opportunities for his team, but he wasn’t the best player on the ice Monday night and it showed. Still, given his performance thus far, he doesn’t shift in the rankings.
Update - Post Game 4: MacKinnon finally found the back of the net with a fortuitous bounce to tie the game and give Colorado a much-needed boost. He put 8 shots on net, the most by any player in Game 4, but struggled to carry play at 5v5 as he had earlier in the series. However, his speed and tenacity in the offensive zone still caused issues for Tampa Bay to sort through. Not MacKinnon’s best showing of the series, but still a very solid performance in a big game.
The reality is, the next two players shouldn’t be in the conversation unless Tampa Bay forces a Game 7, and wins it. Currently, it’s Makar and MacKinnon’s award to battle over.
3. Andrei Vasilevskiy
The best goaltender in the world struggled through the first two games of the Final. He looked rattled, and it bore some worry in Tampa Bay. The sheer amount of questionable goals he's allowed in this series is the biggest thorn that is hurting his case, but Vasilevskiy is known to rebound exceptionally well after poor performances.
The team in front of him hasn't helped him, but make no mistake, Vasilevskiy has not been good to start this series. He managed decently enough after letting in three goals in Game 1, but Game 2 was an absolute slaughter, and the Big Cat was soundly beaten every which way from Sunday by the Avalanche.
The numbers bear this out, Vasilevskiy, the reigning Conn Smythe winner, is sporting a .838 save percentage and a 5.5 goals-against average through two games.
If there is any goaltender who has clearly shown their ability to bounce back and dominate a series, it's Vasilevskiy. He is the catalyst for Tampa Bay's three-peat bid, and even after two ugly games, he is still sporting a .918 save percentage overall—more than good enough to win a series. If Vasilevskiy bounces back, as his history has shown, the Avalanche might be gripping their sticks a little tighter.
Update - Post Game 3: The Big Cat rebounded as The Big Cat does as he recorded a .949 save percentage in the Lightning’s 6-2 rout in Game 3. He allowed zero 5v5 goals and looked more like the best goaltender in the world. If he can maintain that level of play through Game 4, he’s bound to move up the rankings.
Update - Post Game 4: Vasilevskiy did everything he could to will his team to victory in Game 4. It’s unfortunate he can’t score goals too. Nazem Kadri’s overtime game-winner was the only clean shot to beat him the entire evening—MacKinnon and Cogliano’s goals were bounces that didn’t go his way. There is little else to say about Vasilevskiy at this point, he is the catalyst for Tampa Bay having a chance every game and the lynchpin if the two-time defending champs want to keep this series alive.
4. Nikita Kucherov
He's Tampa Bay's most dynamic forward and is one point behind Makar in points (26) among active players in the playoffs. He's shown flashes of brilliance in the early going of this series, specifically, his beautiful play on Ondrej Palat's goal in Game 1.
However, the Lightning goes as Kucherov goes, which was abundantly clear in Game 2 as Colorado waxed Kucherov and Tampa Bay in a drubbing we haven't seen since the 1990s.
Just as Vasilevskiy will likely bounce back and give his team a chance to win, Kucherov has to elevate his game once again to keep his team's hopes alive. With a clearly ailing Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos more in a secondary scoring role at this point in his career, Kucherov will be the driving force that could bring Tampa Bay back into the series.
His past postseasons showcase how dominant of a player he is and how he could've won either Conn Smythe the past two playoffs, and that's what keeps him on this list. You don't count out players like him until they're eliminated.
Update - Post Game 3: As he does in big games, Kucherov made a noticeable impact in Tampa Bay’s 6-2 win to cut Colorado’s series lead in half. His playmaking ability, specifically, on Steven Stamkos’ goal is rare even in today’s NHL.
His injury due to a Devon Toews cross-check might keep him out of the lineup. If it does then Tampa Bay’s climb to a third straight championship will be severely hampered.
Update - Post Game 4: Kucherov was held pointless for the second time this series, and his overall impact was less than ideal. His line was out-attempted, outshot, lost the scoring chance battle, and failed to bring life to Tampa Bay’s dormant power-play at a critical moment. The injury he received from Toews's cross-check in Game 3 might be affecting his play, but Tampa Bay needs more out of their best forward heading into Game 5.