Tampa Bay: apparently still very good!
Well, here we are, back where we started – and closer to having the answer to a question we asked prior to this postseason. With a 2-1 win in Tampa Bay on Saturday night, the Lightning secured their spot in the Stanley Cup final for the third straight year, with captain Steven Stamkos scoring both goals, and are now flirting with all-time greatness.
Whatever you make of that winning goal, New York Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin is to blame for neither the game nor the series result. Shesterkin played a great series. Tampa just does this to teams: they’ve done it 11 straight times in the postseason over the last three years. Whether or not the Rangers were tired from the previous two series, both of which went seven games, Tampa made them look tired. After Games 1 and 2, Tampa out-chanced, out-shot, out-passed and ultimately out-scored, the Rangers. New York were also out-coached – this has also happened a lot to teams facing the Lightning recently. Jon Cooper has a lot to work with, but he’s also an effective communicator: more of a corporate manager than classic hockey coach.
Anyway, here’s how it played out on the ice: After being the first team to get back-to-back wins against Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy in three years, the Rangers stopped scoring. New York notched nine goals in the first two games, but managed only five more through the last four – only one of which they scored at even strength. This is just not going to cut it. Tampa Bay is simply too disciplined a team, too willing to play hardcore defense when it counts, and have too good a goalie to rely on your power play to beat them.
You have to be capable of out-scoring them in all situations. You have to be a team like the Colorado Avalanche.
Avalanche are an offensive machine
There were perhaps only two points during the regular season where the Colorado Avalanche looked like a normal hockey team: at the very beginning, when they struggled out of the gate, and at the very end of it, when they went 1-6 in their last seven games. But that final stretch was either a fluke or an elaborate fake-out. Either way, we should not have been deceived. The reality is that the Avalanche are a marauding hockey machine.
Just look what they did to Edmonton. My God. And yet, here’s the thing: even though the Oilers got swept, their offensive performance was pretty good! In most other situations, it would have likely meant winning the series. Take a look at this comparison from JFreshHockey of five-on-five through 60 minute situations.
In fact, Colorado are already an historical powerhouse. As Neil Paine wrote this week at FiveThirtyEight, this Avalanche squad ranks 10th in per-game scoring differential among all Stanley Cup finalists up to the final round and are tied only with, ironically, the 1982-83 Edmonton Oilers for the second-best win percentage. The 2022 Oilers, for their part, are a pretty good hockey team. But the Oilers are not a good enough hockey team to beat the Colorado Avalanche. The team that’s good enough to beat the Avalanche will have to play very disciplined defensive hockey, have a clutch goaltender, and the ability to shut down a powerful offense.
Oh, and one other thing: they’ll need to be able to get past Cale Makar. Not an easy thing, because if we learned anything from the Avalanche-Oilers series, it’s that …
Makar can see the matrix
The debate regarding the best player in the NHL usually centres on two players: Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid. Understandably so, given their respective goalscoring ability and overall wizardry. Colorado forward Nathan MacKinnon enters this chat from time to time, as well. Yet all along, maybe the best player is actually his teammate, defenseman Cale Makar.
In his 14 playoff games leading up to the final round, Makar has notched 22 points. That includes 10 points during the first-round sweep of the Nashville Predators, the most registered by a defenseman through four playoff games ever. It also includes the five he got in Colorado’s final game against the Oilers, a single-game tally no defenseman has managed in the playoffs since Al MacInnis in 1994. Makar’s closest defensive points competitor this postsseason, Rangers defenceman Adam Fox, had 23 points … but through 20 games. Taking nothing away from Fox, he also wasn’t tasked with covering McDavid. Makar was. And did it without even breaking a sweat.
Makar sees the matrix and bends it to his will. Makar is the One.
A touch of history
There’s a superstition surrounding the NHL’s conference championship trophies: that touching either the Clarence Campbell Bowl (West) or the Prince of Wales trophy (East) will curse your team to Stanley Cup doom. It’s also customary that if the team poses with either trophy, they do so with solemn faces. The logic, if you want to call it that, is that it’s not the real thing. The theory is hogwash, of course: plenty of teams who’ve touched either trophy have gone on to win the Stanley Cup. But the tradition is reflective of the fact that nobody really cares about conference championships in hockey. Only the Stanley Cup matters. But it’s still fun to watch a team debate in real-time whether to collectively choose superstitious belief or not – or which version of it.
Joe Sakic clearly doesn’t care about the superstition. But can other coincidences carry meaning? As mentioned, this Avalanche team has the best playoff win record since the 1982-83 Oilers going into the Final. As it happens, those Oilers faced the New York Islanders – and got swept. It was the Islanders’ third straight Stanley Cup win, the last time a three-peat happened.
Before the series against the Islanders in the spring of 1983, Oilers general manager Glen Sather told the New York Times: “I don’t see that we’re much different than the Islanders. Except that they’ve gone a lot farther than we have. And we’d certainly like to replace them.” Reflecting years later on their loss, the Oilers saw what the differences actually were. “They were a little more disciplined than we were and probably had a better work ethic,” Grant Fuhr said in 2019. “As we walked by the Islander room that year, we got a sense of realization of how hard it is to win,” Wayne Gretzky said. “They weren’t even celebrating, I was thinking ‘They’re exhausted, I guess there’s more to give.’” Paul Coffey said.
The Lightning have proven this postseason why they’re the first team since those Islanders to play for a third Cup in a row. Now, here come the Avalanche: a high-scoring, fast, dynamic team from the West. The 80s vibes are strong right now.
Will we get a three-peat?
I’m lousy at predictions most of the time, but this matchup that’s felt right since the start of the postseason – maybe because it feels like the guard’s about to change. But is now the time? Colorado will give Tampa Bay their toughest challenge yet. They’ll be rested and they’ll be hungry. They’re arguably the toughest opponent the Lightning have faced in the final: they’re a way better team than Dallas or Montreal. The Avalanche can do everything that’s necessary to beat the Lightning, no question. But I don’t think they will. Tampa feel like the deeper team, mentally. And with Brayden Point likely to return, they’ll be deeper offensively, too. Tampa will figure out Colorado – or at least Vasilevskiy will, and that might be all that matters.
A couple months ago, my money was on Colorado. Now, I think Tampa Bay will three-peat. But we’ll get six games of great hockey before that.