by Eric Fulton
The 2022 Stanley Cup Playoffs has reached it final series and it features two teams that will either end a championship drought or officially call themselves a dynasty. Both the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning have been the top teams in the National Hockey League (NHL) in recent years. The Avalanche have been an excellent regular season team the past couple of years, but have ran into tough luck in the playoffs getting eliminated in the second round the last two seasons. For the Lightning, after being swept out of the playoffs as the number one overall seed in the first round in 2019, they have been on a mission to establish themselves as the next great dynasty in the NHL.
While Colorado and Tampa Bay have never met in the Stanley Cup Final, they do pose some similarities that could have the potential to make this year’s Stanley Cup Final an all-time classic. The Avalanche are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2001 and are looking to win their third Stanley Cup since moving to Denver from Quebec, Canada in 1995. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is looking at NHL immortality as they look to become the first team to win at least three straight Stanley Cups since the early 1980s New York Islanders, who won four straight titles. Let’s break down the matchup and see which team has the better forwards, defensemen, goalie and coaching.
Forwards: Colorado has a strong forward core led by captain Gabriel Landeskog and superstar Nathan McKinnon. Both players are participating in their first Stanley Cup Final. The Avalanche do have a player with Stanley Cup Final experience in Andre Burakovsky, who won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018. The duo of Landeskog (8 goals and 17 points in the 2022 playoffs) and McKinnon (11 goals and 18 points in the playoffs) will be key in leading the Avalanche to win. Outside of Burakovsky, another player who could be a wild card at forward for Colorado is Mikko Rantanen. Rantanen only has five goals in the playoffs but can dish out excellent passes as he has 12 assists in the playoffs.
Tampa Bay will counter with Steven Stamkos, who has 15 points (9 goals, 6 assists) in the 2022 playoffs. Also, former Hart Trophy (regular season MVP) winner Nikita Kucherov can be dangerous anytime he can touch the puck (7 goals + 16 assists = 23 points). The X factor for the Lightning is left winger Ondrej Palat, who scored two game-winning goals in the Lightning’s win over the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.
Advantage: I love both teams forward core. It is very tough to call. While Tampa Bay’s experience in these championship format is important, Colorado’s forwards can give Tampa Bay problems. Also, the Lightning could be without Brayden Point, another key forward for Tampa Bay. I will give the slight edge to the Avalanche.
Defensemen: Colorado has a mostly young defensive core led by Cale Makar, a former first round pick in 2017. He leads the team in scoring by a defensemen in the postseason (5 goals + 17 assists = 22 points). At just 23 years of age, Makar is just getting started with a career with potential Norris Trophy (Best Defenseman) awards in sight. Devon Toews is another key for the Avs’ D. He took on the Lightning in the 2020 Eastern Conference Final as a member of the New York Islanders.
The Lightning have two excellent defensemen in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. Another key defenseman to keep an eye out is Mikhail Sergachev, a young defenseman acquired by Tampa Bay in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens in 2017. All he has done is help the Lightning have one of the best defensive cores in the NHL.
Advantage: I have to take experience over mostly youth in this category. Makar and Toews are really good, but Tampa Bay’s experience is key.
Goaltending: The Avalanche have had to play multiple goalies during this playoff round. Even though they have played less games than the Lightning, they have had to use two goaltenders, Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francousz. They have been really good, but neither have Stanley Cup Final experience.
On the other hand, some would consider Tampa Bay’s goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy the best goaltender on Earth and they might be right. Last year’s Conn Smthe Winner (MVP in the Stanley Cup Playoffs) has a chance to join some elite company as a starting goaltender to win three straight Stanley Cups. He would join New York Islander legend Billy Smith as the only goaltenders to win all their series for at least three years in a row.
Advantage: This one is not close. While Colorado is lucky two of their playoff series wins were sweeps, I do not see them match up very well against Vasilevskiy. Tampa Bay has a clear advantage in the goalie department.
Coaching: Jared Bednar is in his sixth season as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche. The rise of the Avalanche and Bednar could not have been scripted any better. In Bednar’s first season, the Avalanche were the worst team in the NHL. But through major trades, the Avalanche were back in the playoffs two years later and now on the cusp of capturing hockey’s top prize.
Jon Cooper’s tenure as coach of the Lightning is currently the longest running in the NHL. Cooper has been head coach for Tampa Bay since 2013. He led the Lightning to a Stanley Cup Final in 2015, which they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games. More playoff failures would continue until 2020 when the Lightning hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second time ever and then repeat the feat in 2021. Cooper’s legacy in Tampa Bay is already sealed but it could be an even bigger legacy if Tampa Bay wins their third straight Stanley Cup.
Advantage: Jared Bednar and Jon Cooper are easily the two best coaches in the NHL today. While I do think Bednar is a great coach and the right fit for the Avalanche, what Jon Cooper has done with the Lightning is truly special. I would give the slight edge to Cooper and the Lightning.
Prediction: As said earlier, I think this final series has the makings of an all-time classic. Colorado is looking to end a drought while Tampa Bay is seeking NHL history by trying to win a third straight title. I like Colorado especially at home where they play the first two games. However, watching a three-peat in the NHL today would be amazing for the Lightning and the sport of hockey.
Lightning will win in six games.
Game one of the NHL Stanley Cup Final starts tonight (June 15) in Denver on ABC at 7 p.m. (CST).