The NHL’s classic selling point for the Stanley Cup has two prongs. One is that it is the best trophy in sports, which is certainly true. You cannot drink beer, eat ice cream, and bathe an infant with any of the other major North American sporting grails. The other element in the Cup’s favor, hockey people will often tell you, is that it is the hardest trophy to win among all of its peers. That is much more debatable—the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Trophy requires the same grueling 16 playoff wins on a similar timeframe, for one counter—but few would quibble with the notion that winning the Stanley Cup is a brutal endeavor. After all, it is quite hot this time of year, and players vying for the Cup are not even allowed to shave.
The postseasons in baseball and football are short and random enough that a lesser team can ride a magic carpet into the final round. It is barely possible to fake your way into the Stanley Cup Final, though. Nobody has swept this series since 1998, and only five series since then have resolved in fewer than six of a possible seven games. The vast majority are long slogs. The Tampa Bay Lightning putting a stop to the Montreal Canadiens’ surprise run with a sweep in 2021 was an outlier, and not just because the Canadiens were playing in a pandemic-created division that no longer exists.
But this year, the NHL has gotten the gift of something exceptional. The Lightning are still here, vying to become the first three-peat champion since the New York Islanders in the early 1980s. They have backed up against the ropes a couple of times in these playoffs, at moments when they looked to be running out of gas in the way most teams in their position have done. After all, they have played much more hockey the past two years than anyone else. But they’ve slingshotted themselves back to victory in two series, and they overpowered their opponent in a four-game sweep in another. The Lightning are gravity defiers. Their opponent in Wednesday’s Game 1 is the Colorado Avalanche. In the context of their era, the Avalanche have one of the great scoring attacks of all time. They have subjected two different playoff foes, the Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers, to sweeps in which the Avs averaged better than five goals per game—a feat without recent precedent and whose only historic analogs come from higher-scoring eras.
In some sense, the Avalanche are the unstoppable force trying to dislodge the immovable Lightning from the pinnacle of the sport. In another, the Lightning are an equally unstoppable force that manages to keep getting stronger when every circumstance points in the opposite direction. Whatever your preferred metaphor, the 2022 Stanley Cup Final should be one of the best championship series in a long time.
The fireworks are likely to begin with Colorado’s offense. The Avalanche have such an embarrassment of riches that an injury to their third-leading scorer, 87-point center Nazem Kadri, prompts a reaction more along the lines of “Wow, how cool would it be if he could play?” than “Uh oh, the Avalanche are in big trouble if he can’t.” They have five other players who cleared the 25-goal threshold, and five who had at least 39 assists in the 82-game season. (Captain Gabriel Landeskog had 30 goals and 29 assists in just 51 games and has returned in the playoffs to add 17 points in 14 games.) The Avs’ foundational players are center Nathan MacKinnon and defenseman Cale Makar, respectively among the fastest skaters and best puck-moving backliners to ever play in the NHL. Winger Mikko Rantanen scored 36 goals to lead the team but isn’t exactly a sniper, because he is just as focused on using his speed to open passing lanes for his teammates. The Avalanche looked in the first half of the season like one of the most prolific scoring teams in league history. Injuries and some standard dialing-back slowed them down as the regular season went on, but they got back to obliterating teams as soon as the playoffs began.
The Avalanche will probably spend most of the series with the puck on their sticks, while the Lightning will spend a lot of time in their own zone. The Lightning are comfortable there, though. In a paradox, their most dominant of three playoff series—a second-round sweep of their little brothers, the Florida Panthers—came when the Panthers dominated possession and hemmed the Lightning in around their goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Vasilevskiy is the best goalie in the world. They couldn’t generate many great chances and couldn’t crack him often when they did, and the Lightning scored enough ugly goals to blow them away. Vasilevskiy gets ample insulation from one of the best defensive corps in the league, led by impending Hall of Famer Victor Hedman. The Swede still has a strong case as the best defender on Earth, but if he isn’t, it’s arguably because Colorado’s Cale Makar has supplanted him. Both of them pile up points at the clip of an elite forward; Makar had 86 and Hedman had 85 this season, both totals that are close to unheard-of in the current century. (Nashville’s Roman Josi had 96. It was quite a year for offensive defense.) The defensive duel will be almost as fun as watching MacKinnon, Rantanen, and friends try to pick corners against the close-to-impenetrable Vasilevskiy.
The Lightning’s superstar forwards will make sure they’re heard, too. Tampa Bay has flashed a less freewheeling offensive style in these playoffs than was typical during their past two Cup runs, and center Steven Stamkos’ decisive two goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final were typical of this toned-down Lightning. His first was a long wrist shot that New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin didn’t track well, and the game-winner bounced off Stamkos’ pants as he drove to the netmouth. But he and winger Nikita Kucherov still brew magic pretty often, and we should expect to see at least a few special plays.
The Avalanche are the favorites, according to both bettors and most computer models. (The Athletic’s gives Colorado a 61 percent chance to win; FiveThirtyEight’s has it at 62 percent.) But if the series has a Chaos Emerald, it is Colorado’s goaltending. Where the Lightning have Vasilevskiy, the Avalanche will rely on one of two 32-year-olds with a much more limited and checkered track record than the Tampa Bay goalie’s Vezina Trophy and pair of Cup wins. The Avalanche starter is Darcy Kuemper, a longtime NHLer who spent most of his career as a backup for the Minnesota Wild, Arizona Coyotes, and Los Angeles Kings. Kuemper has come on strong in the past few years and just had the season of his life, in which he was a well-above-average backstop. He has been less good in the playoffs, and some mix of poor play and injury (mostly injury, it seems) got him yanked early in the Western Conference Final for backup Pavel Francouz. The Avalanche’s avalanche of goals has helped Francouz post a 6-0 record in the playoffs. But he’s given up about three goals per game and let in a few softies, and he has never played on a stage like this against an opponent like this one. Whoever starts the series, the other guy could finish it.
On the one hand, the Avalanche goalies make for a great story no matter which one tends the pipes. It is cool to see a journeyman lead his team onto the ice in the Stanley Cup Final after a career that surely had many moments of doubt that anything like that scene would ever be real. On the other, most great stories in the Cinderella goaltender genre do not end with the goalie hoisting the Cup. Eventually, they crack, as all goalies do from time to time, but as is less common for a Hall of Fame player like Vasilevskiy. The 2010 Philadelphia Flyers, who made the Final with a goaltending timeshare between veterans Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, are an imperfect but worthwhile comparison point. The Flyers had a dream run but gave up 25 goals in six Finals games against the Chicago Blackhawks. The last was a zero-angle shot from the corner that slipped through Leighton in overtime to lock up the Cup for Chicago. Kuemper and Francouz are a good bit better than Leighton and Boucher, who were mostly bad rather than pretty solid, and the team’s all-world scoring prowess means that even a bad goaltending series would not make a loss inevitable. But it is the big wild card here, and the Lightning having Vasilevskiy to counter makes goaltending a big advantage for the underdogs.
From the NHL’s perspective, all of this is coming to a head at a great time. The league is in the first year of a new set of television contracts, which has (among other things) returned the NHL to ESPN. The entire series will air in primetime on ABC, which is a nice change for the sport’s visibility after many years of NBC placing some Finals games on its defunct secondary sports network. By hockey standards, a lot of people have watched these playoffs. Short of LeBron James and Tom Brady suiting up, there is nothing one series can do to jolt the sport into a totally competitive footing with the country’s other big leagues. But the Lightning-Avalanche matchup is as good an advertisement as hockey’s bosses could have hoped for, thanks to Tampa Bay’s bid for history and Colorado’s obscene skill. If this series cannot convert at least a few new fans, then nothing on skates and wearing shoulder pads can.