I’m not putting my back into this because the Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t playing, but since commenter EvanRodrigues9 asked I’m going to put it together hastily. It’s also been a few weeks since the last post, and it would have been another couple of weeks before the next one. So, here we are, previewing Game 1 of a Stanley Cup Finals of little consequence to any of us!
The contestants for this year’s Finals are the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Avalanche return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2001, when they won the franchise’s second championship in seven games against the New Jersey Devils. There are some parallels that could be drawn between this year’s Avalanche and those from 2001; Nathan MacKinnon is arguably Joe Sakic, and Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog could be substitutes for Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay. Cale Makar may still have a long ways to go to catch up to the legend of Ray Bourque, but Makar is 17 years younger than the former Bruin and is closer to winning the Cup than Bourque was at the same age. The biggest difference though is that neither of Colorado’s present goaltenders, be it Pavel Francouz or Darcy Kuemper, are anywhere near the level of Patrick Roy. Roy finished fifth in Vezina voting for the 2000-01 season, and while Kuemper had a season that will probably garner him some votes in the Vezina race, it’s not likely to land him in the top five.
The Avalanche spent most of the second half of the season at or near the top of the League standings, only yielding in the last couple of weeks of the regular season schedule to the Florida Panthers, who would win the President’s Trophy and doom themselves to the associated curse of postseason failure as a result. Colorado ended up marauding its way to the Cup Finals by sweeping the Nashville Predators, winning in six games against the St. Louis Blues, then finally sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Finals. After a few consecutive years of second round exits, the time appears to be now for the Avalanche.
Standing in their way are the two-time defending champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, looking to become the first team since the the New York Islanders in the 1980s and just the second in the expansion era to win three Cups in a row. As such, most of the names and faces we’re already pretty well familiar with: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, but also relatively new names Ondrej Palat and Corey Perry. The Lightning once again played fairly conservatively in the regular season, coasting their way to a third-place finish in the Atlantic Division. They teased the Toronto Maple Leafs in their seven-game first round series before rolling over the Florida Panthers in a second round sweep, then fought their way through the physicality of the New York Rangers before winning the Eastern Conference Finals in six games.
Unlike the Avalanche, there is no debate as to the identity or the caliber of the Lightning’s starting goaltender. The only other goaltender to arguably outperform Andrei Vasilevskiy in these playoffs is fellow Vezina finalist Igor Shesterkin, and not only was a lot of Shesterkin’s numbers inflated by the fact that the Rangers defense is terrible, but also Shesterkin is no longer in the playoffs while Vasilevskiy remains. Thus, the goaltending advantage in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals is decidedly in Tampa’s favor. The Lightning are also expecting the return of star forward Brayden Point tonight, who has been absent for Tampa since he suffered a leg injury in Game 7 against Toronto. Considering that the Lightning were successfully able to go two rounds without Point bodes well for their chances in this series against Colorado.
These are two very deep and talented teams, a great matchup for the Stanley Cup Finals. To me the goaltending is the difference maker, as well as the fact that this is Tampa’s third Cup Finals in a row and their fourth in eight seasons. This is a very seasoned Lightning team and they are well positioned to make history against the Avalanche. That said, the odds are against them and if Colorado can make up that difference in goaltending, the intangible fact that Tampa is a veteran team can be made irrelevant.
I have no horse in this race. My NHL.com bracket is irreparably busted, doomed by my steadfast dedication to the Penguins. I’d prefer it if the Lightning didn’t three-peat and tie the Crosby/Malkin-era Penguins in Stanley Cup championships, but a great team is just that. That said, Sidney Crosby’s bro Nathan MacKinnon is due for a Cup, even if that means Jack Johnson would get one too.