2022 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Avalanche vs. Lightning
While we all think of the Stanley Cup Finals as a meeting between the two best teams, the reality is that isn’t the case every single year. A lot can happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — injuries, a hot goalie, weird bounces, questionable officiating, the NHL’s wonky playoff format, and so much more — that can keep the best two teams from meeting on hockey’s biggest stage. That’s not to discredit a team like the 2021 Montréal Canadiens; every team that reaches the Stanley Cup Final earns their place there. But not all finalists are created equal.
However, the 2022 Stanley Cup Final might just be the platonic ideal of hockey’s biggest stage. The Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t just legitimate contenders; they’ve arguably been the NHL’s two best teams over the last three seasons. Colorado has accumulated thirteen more regular season points than any team over that span. Tampa Bay, meanwhile, has not lost a playoff series during that time, winning two Stanley Cups and advancing to the precipice of a third. There are stars abound on both sides. There is no clear favorite. This is what the Stanley Cup Final is supposed to be.
Only twice since 2015 has there been a Stanley Cup Final where both teams finished top ten in the regular season: 2018, featuring an actual expansion team in Vegas, and 2020, when the playoffs took place in bubbles during the middle of a pandemic. And of course, we have not seen a back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cup champion since the Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s racked up four in a row. The Lightning have played some great teams in their run of eleven straight series wins. But this Avalanche team is almost certainly their strongest foe yet. Strong enough to knock them off the lofty perch earned by winning consecutive Cups? That’s for the next four to seven games to decide.
Colorado Avalanche (56-19-7, No. 1 Central) vs. Tampa Bay Lightning (51-23-8, No. 3 Atlantic)
Recent History: Most Stanley Cup Final matchups are first-time playoff meetings between teams, especially for ones introduced as recently into the NHL as the Avalanche and Lightning. Yes, the 90s are still considered recent in this context. And yes, this is the first-ever playoff clash between the Avs and Bolts.
Season Series: A pair of one-goal wins for the Avalanche; 4-3 in Tampa Bay back in October, and a 3-2 win in Denver in February. Not much of a point in delving too much into this, since both games occurred before either team fleshed out their roster.
The Last Time Here: Even though they’ve emerged as a powerhouse in recent years, this is Colorado’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2001. For reference, their captain that year, Joe Sakic, is now their GM. Patrick Roy was their goaltender; now, he’s just one of Colorado’s biggest fans, with a stint as their head coach in between. The Avalanche won a tense, back-and-forth series over Martin Brodeur and the trap-perfecting Devils, a series that is most remembered for Ray Bourque’s iconic Cup raise after winning his first championship in the last of the 1,826 NHL games (regular season and playoffs) he played in.
You probably already remember for Tampa Bay, but here’s a brief refresher anyway. The Lightning came into last year’s Final as the defending champions and heavy favorites over the scrappy Montréal Canadiens. Usually, even a heavy underdog is able to put up a fairly strong fight in the Stanley Cup Final. But the Lightning simply overwhelmed the Canadiens, clearly proving their superiority. Tampa Bay won the first three games in convincing fashion, then bounced back from
a planned loss so they could win at home tough OT defeat in Game 4, taking Game 5 and their second straight Cup with a 1-0 win.
The Road Thus Far: It’s been pretty smooth sailing for Colorado. The Avalanche have not fallen behind in a series yet these playoffs and are the first team in the salary cap era to record multiple sweeps en route to reaching the Stanley Cup Final. It started with utter dominance of Nashville, a series that the Avalanche rarely felt threatened in. Round 2 proved to be a bit tougher. The Avalanche were still driving play (59.84% expected goals share, the best of any team in Round 2). But the Blues were seconds away from sending Game 6 into overtime with a chance to force Game 7. But a last-second blast by Darren Helm pushed Colorado through.
In the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001, the Avalanche took advantage of the Oilers’ weak defense and Mike Smith’s inconsistent goaltending. Most impressively, they actually somewhat handled Connor McDavid. First, it’s a testament to just how dominant McDavid is that allowing him to score seven points in four games isn’t that bad. But McDavid, a play-driving beast through the first two rounds (62.87% expected goals share, Oilers outscoring opponents 25-9 with McDavid) was out-chanced (48.34% xG) and outscored 8-6 while on the ice in the WCF. The Oilers had their moments, but the Avalanche simply overwhelmed them.
The heart rates and nervousness of the Lightning and their fans have been in flux all playoffs. Tampa Bay quickly found itself up against the ropes in Round 1, trailing 3-2 Toronto in the series, and entered the third period of Game 6 trailing by the same score. But as they always do, the Lightning found a way to clutch up. Their star scorers (Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point) carried to a Game 7, where their depth (Nick Paul) and Andrei Vasilevskiy pushed them past the Maple Leafs.
A dominant second-round sweep of Florida in which the Lightning held a team that averaged over four goals per game in the regular season to just three goals total in the series seemingly had the Bolts back on track. But they were derailed early in Round 3, falling behind the Rangers 2-0 and failing to consistently drive play. But a couple of massive lead-changing goals in the last two minutes of regulation by the underrated Ondrej Palat in Games 3 and 5 broke the Rangers down. Igor Shesterkin did his very best. But a two-goal Game 6 from Steven Stamkos was enough to bring the Lightning to the brink of history.
Colorado Wins Because: They have the rest and talent necessary to wear down the Lightning. The 2019-20 Dallas Stars had zero players who averaged 0.75 points per game or more (about 62 points for 82 games) in the regular season. The 2020-21 Montréal Canadiens had two. And no one on either of those teams scored at a point-per-game pace in their playoff run. The 2021-22 Colorado Avalanche have eight, including five who averaged more than a point per game. Six different Avalanche players are scoring at a point-per-game-plus rate in the playoffs. The Lightning have seen some offensive juggernauts, of course. They beat a Maple Leafs team featuring the league’s first 60-goal scorer in a decade. The very next round, they took down the Panthers, the league’s best offensive team in over 25 years. But they haven’t faced a team this dangerous this deep in the playoffs yet.
There’s a healthy debate for the league’s second most dangerous player behind Connor McDavid; a debate that it feels like Nathan MacKinnon has gotten lost in the shuffle of a bit. It’s somewhat understandable; between Auston Matthews’ 60 goal season, Leon Draisaitl’s unbelievable playoff performance, those ensuring older stars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin don’t get forgotten, and breakouts for lethal weapons like Jonathan Huberdeau and Krill Kaprizov, someone is bound to get overlooked. And whether you agree that’s been the case with MacKinnon or not, there’s no questioning his dominance in this year’s playoffs.
After being completely shut down by Mark Stone’s line in the second round last year, MacKinnon is back to the undisputed beast mode we saw emerge in the 2020 playoffs. That year MacKinnon scored 25 points in just 15 games, a 1.67 points per game average that’s tied for 9th most for a single playoff run in the salary cap era (min. four games played; bump that number up to eight, and MacKinnon is T-5th). He’s driving play at an absurd rate (61.6% expected goals share), shooting the puck like a madman (13.93 shots per 60 at 5-on-5, 3rd most in the playoffs), and trails only Evander Kane with eleven goals to his name. It’s a two-horse race between him and Cale Makar (more on him later). One drives the bus up front, the other on the back end.
Both have plenty of help, too, although not as much as they did a handful of games ago. I talked about the importance of Samuel Girard’s absence in my Western Conference Final preview. And unfortunately I’m talking about another significant injury to a significant piece for Colorado. A dirty hit by Evander Kane on Nazem Kadri has knocked Colorado’s second-line center out of the end of the Western Conference Final and beyond. Kadri reportedly underwent thumb surgery and after initial doubt that he’d return, it sounds more likely Kadri that Kadri will play at some point in the Final (same for depth forward Andrew Cogliano, who was injured in the same game as Kadri).
Losing Kadri, who is third in the playoffs in controlled entries per 60 in the playoffs and, outside of fourth liners like Cogliano, Darren Helm, and Logan O’Connor leads the Avalanche in expected goals against per 60, is a major blow. The only thing bigger than Kadri’s loss is the surprise of who’s taking over the 2C spot in his absence. That’s Mikko Rantanen, who, to my knowledge, has never played center for any extended period in the NHL. His lone game down the middle was solid, not spectacular. Rantanen’s raw 54.26% xG share is strong. But his -4.14% mark relative to his teammates (meaning Colorado drove play more when Rantanen was off the ice than on) in that department isn’t.
He also won just 38% of his face-offs, which could be an underrated issue for the Avalanche. Both Colorado and Tampa Bay were top in the league in shots per 60 off face-offs. But the Avs have just one center (excluding the injured Kadri) who won more than 50% of their regular season draws; the red-hot J.T. Compher, who has five points (all goals) in his last five games. The Lightning, meanwhile, have five who did so; six if you count the also injured Brayden Point.
Still, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are two outstanding complements to MacKinnon up front. Landeskog’s role is especially important because unlike most of the Avs, he’s better suited to contribute on the forecheck than the rush. Tampa Bay’s defense will undoubtedly have to respect the speed and creativity that MacKinnon, Kadri, and others have. Valeri Nichushkin is a dual threat when it comes to controlled entries versus forechecking prowess. A 6’4”, 210 lb wrecking ball in the midst of a career year, Nichushkin has been an analytical force for a few seasons now. And it’s nice to see him earn widespread recognition this year. That said, the Avalanche would probably be wise to reunite Artturi Lehkonen, another analytical darling, with Landeskog and MacKinnon as opposed to Nichushkin.
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The Girard injury certainly hurts Colorado’s defensive depth. But in Devon Toews and Cale Makar, the Avalanche undoubtedly have an elite defensive pairing — arguably the game’s best. If/while Point is out, that tilts things further in Colorado’s favor because the Lightning only have one dangerous scoring line. Having your only two elite scoring threats on one line should make it easy for Jared Bednar to match whichever pair he feels can shut them down the best. Makar and Toews may get that role because of how strong they are at playing with the puck. Oh, and Makar is fifth among all NHLers in scoring in these playoffs. No defenseman has averaged more points per game than Makar’s 1.57 mark (min. 5 games played) since Paul Coffey in 1985. Makar continues to find himself in well-deserved Hall of Fame company. Adding a Conn Smythe would only strengthen those comparisons.
As a whole, the Avalanche are very strong at holding the blue-line and have three legitimately strong puck movers — Toews, Makar, and one of the underrated breakout performers of the entire playoffs, Bowen Byram. He’s 10th among NHL defenders in Corsi For% and 14th% in xG, ranking first and second on the Avalanche, respectively. A lot has been made of Josh Manson’s struggles to move the puck. But it’s worth noting he’s especially stout at denying controlled entries. Both he and Erik Johnson do a good job of not allowing chances on the entries they do yield, too. The fall off from Girard to Jack Johnson is deep, as expected. But this is still an Avalanche blue-line with four of the top six defensemen in these playoffs by Corey Sznajder’s Game Score metric per 60 minutes, which accounts for shots, passes, zone exits, and zone entries.
What Colorado can feel comfortable about is their goaltending being better than it’s been so far in the playoffs. Most of the regular season numbers get thrown out this time of year because of just how different playoff hockey is, at least for skaters. But a goaltender’s job in October is the same as it is in June. The lights get brighter, and the opponents do get better. But it’s not like there’s a fundamental change to the types of challenges facing them.
The words every Avalanche fan is, or should be, repeating to themselves when it comes to goaltending are sample size. In 57 regular season games, Darcy Kuemper was one of the league’s best goaltenders, emerging from a slow start to save 21 goals above expected, fifth most in the league. Pavel Francouz, playing for the first time since the bubble, stopped a respectable 1.9 goals above expected in 21 appearances.
But the playoffs have spit up and chewed out both net-minders. Kuemper missed almost the entire Western Conference Final with an upper-body injury likely related to the stick he took through his mask in Round 1. Even when Kuemper has played in these playoffs, he’s struggled. Only Ville Husso has allowed more goals above expected than Kuemper. How much of that is due to Kuemper potentially playing at less than 100% is obviously uncertain. Meanwhile, Francouz has been the definition of average in this tournament. He’s faced 15.02 expected goals and allowed 15 actual goals. You can with that when you’re averaging 5.5 goals per game like the Avalanche did against Edmonton. But that is very unlikely to be a sustainable path to victory against the Lightning.
Tampa Bay Wins Because: It’s what they do, plain and simple. The cliché that “knowing how to win” is vital to winning big games is overused often. But it legitimately applies to the Lightning. Tampa Bay has faced plenty of moments in these playoffs where other teams, even themselves a few years ago, would have wilted. The Lightning only faced elimination once combined over the last two playoffs — Game 7 of the 2021 Eastern Conference Final against the Islanders.
That total doubled in their first-round series against Toronto. And it was one goal away from ballooning further in Games 3 and 5 against the Rangers. Maybe Tampa Bay being pushed to the brink more often is a sign that playing over 60 playoff games since August 2020 is finally starting to wear them down. But the fact that they’re still standing is proof of just how hard dethroning the Bolts will be.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Tampa Bay’s recent playoff success is what they’ve overcome. Not just the demons set loose by their stunning sweep defeat against Columbus in 2019. But also significant injuries to a top-line player in two of their three runs. Steven Stamkos infamously played just 2:47 in Tampa Bay’s 2020 Cup win, dressing for only one game. This year, the Lightning have managed mostly without their best player Brayden Point, who was injured early in Game 7 of the Toronto series. Most teams would crater without their first-line center, especially one as important in transition and skilled offensively as Point.
Yet the Lightning have thrived, generating 3.08 expected goals per 60 at 5-on-5 since Point’s absence, compared to 2.47 before his injury (playoffs only). Part of that is the result of playing two not exactly stellar defensive teams in the Panthers and Rangers. But another is the re-emergence of Stamkos, who is back at center with Point out. Stamkos leads the Lightning with nine goals, including seven at 5-on-5. The latter figure is one more than he scored in the 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2016* playoffs combined (*Stamkos only played in one game these playoffs due to injury). He isn’t driving play, but the Lightning are outscoring opponents 13-9 with him on the ice. It’s a nutshell of Tampa Bay’s playoff mentality: just win.
It helps having a star talent like Nikita Kucherov by his side. Stamkos and Kucherov played just 6:19 together at 5-on-5 last year. But they’ve spent roughly 60% of their 5-on-5 time together in these playoffs. Kucherov is the Lightning’s leader in Game Score. The playoff scoring race is probably Kucherov’s to lose. Only one other player still standing (Cale Makar) is even within four points of the 2019 Hart winner. Kucherov is easily Tampa Bay’s most lethal threat in transition with Point out. And both he and Stamkos have been dynamite on a Lightning power-play that is still going strong. Tampa Bay is second in the NHL in PP expected goals per 60 since Point when down, scoring on 24.1% of their man advantages.
Once again, some of Tampa Bay’s most consistent play is coming from its depth. Even a total personnel change hasn’t been enough to stop the magic that overtook Tampa Bay’s shutdown line back in 2020. Just like they did that year, Tampa Bay splurged on a couple of young forwards on cheap contracts, trading for Chicago’s Brandon Hagel and Ottawa’s Nick Paul at the deadline. Neither is lightning it up from a scoring standpoint, save for Paul’s two-goal Game 7 against Toronto. Hagel has been a little-things-king up on the second line. And Paul is thriving on line three alongside Ross Colton and Corey Perry. That line has a 63% expected goals share together. Tampa Bay’s fourth line of Pat Maroon, Pierre-Eduoard Bellemare, and Riley Nash has also been very strong together. Although they’ve played just 21 minutes as a unit.
The rest of Tampa Bay’s long-standing contributors have been a bit of a mixed bag. Ondrej Palat has been very strong; only Kucherov and Hagel rank higher than him in playoff Game Score, and Palat made his mark on the Lightning’s run with his two late game-winners against New York. Anthony Cirelli, who hadn’t lived up to his dark horse Selke reputation in prior playoffs, was one of Tampa Bay’s best players against the Rangers.
Interestingly, Cirelli’s 64.64% expected goals share in Round 3 was much more a product of his offense. Cirelli actually led the Bolts in expected goals for per 60 while on the ice in Round 3. However, he’s only managed one goal and five points so far in these playoffs. Granted, that’s still one more of each than the usually reliable Alex Killorn. Killorn carved out a niché as a strong top-six support piece who was excellent near the net-front. But he’s completely off the power-play and hasn’t generated much offense at 5v5.
Victor Hedman is still the gold standard on Tampa Bay’s backend, which is no surprise. Hedman ranks 14th in the playoffs in expected goals per 60 among defensemen (min. 20 5-on-5 minutes). He’s seventh by Sznajder’s game score metric. However, Ryan McDonagh has also had a very strong playoffs as well. He’s second in the playoffs in blocked shots with 50. And while that’s generally a sign of spending too much time in your own zone, that isn’t the case for McDonagh, who has a 54% expected goals share.
They’re the two leading catalysts of a Tampa Bay blueline that is very strong at preventing chances at 5-on-5. Mikhail Sergachev is a strong puck-mover as well, but he doesn’t face the quality of competition Hedman and McDonagh do. The Lightning’s right side is much weaker than their left, but they’ve been solid in these playoffs, too. Erik Cernak and Zach Bogosian have been strong at holding the line, while Jan Rutta allows the fourth fewest entries with a chance per 60 minutes. It’s a unit that’s both stronger than the sum of its parts and has some elite components. That’s a pretty good combination.
You can debate about which side has the advantage up front or on defense. But in goal, the edge is clear, and it’s substantial. While Colorado’s goaltending has mostly been about not holding the team back in these playoffs, Andrei Vasilevskiy is once again leading the charge for the Lightning. However, the reigning Conn Smythe winner is having a bit of a disappointing playoff run. After all, he’s allowed one whole goal in two of Tampa Bay’s three series-clinching wins in 2022. Shameful.
But all sarcasm aside, Vasilevskiy is fourth in the playoffs in goals saved above expected per 60 minutes, stopping 12.7 above expected in total. It’s not the one goal saved above expected rate he played at last year. But it’s still obviously impressive. There are a few different ways the Lightning could lose this series. But goaltending falling apart almost certainly isn’t one of them. It’s a substantial leg up.
The Pick: Here’s an interesting trend for you. The last time the team that played fewer games in their conference final than their Stanley Cup final appearance won it all was the 2012 Kings (Tampa Bay and Chicago also both played seven in 2015). The only two teams to sweep a conference final in that span (the 2013 and 2019 Bruins) also lost in the Final. Granted, none of those teams were likely playing an opponent as worn down as these Lightning. If there’s ever a time where rest beats rust, it’s this year.
Usually, there’s at least somewhat of a general consensus favoring one team in a playoff series. That isn’t really the case here. And looking into the numbers does little to sway me. Both of these are elite in most areas with a couple of potential weaknesses. Not to mention the injuries on both sides that further cloud the picture. You can’t go wrong siding with either team. But for me, there are just too many questions surrounding the Avalanche. Yes, the Lightning don’t know when Point is coming back, or how effective he can be. But the goaltending disparity is massive unless Kuemper not only returns to the ice, but his spring form. And even that wouldn’t guarantee an Avalanche win.
It just feels like there are more ways for Tampa Bay to win this series than Colorado. You could debate if the Lightning haven’t truly beaten the best team in the Final the last two years. That shouldn’t be an argument this time. Tampa Bay in 6.
Oddly Specific Prediction: This is an idea I always borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series. The idea is his; the predictions are mine.
If you listened to our SCF podcast preview episode of That’s Some Cheese, you already know the answer. Usually, the main fascination with a Cup winning team is its star players. Maybe sometimes one or two role players move into the spotlight as well. But it was nearly how much attention and praise Tampa Bay’s third line of Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Blake Coleman earned the last two playoffs. In their defense, it was very well deserved. The playoffs are a time for a lot of things, and narratives are chief among them. That’s why the Stanley Cup winning goal this year is being scored with the Lightning’s third line on the ice. It’s either Tampa Bay can’t recapture the magic or it’s too strong to have ever left. Either way, it should be a great Final.