The Cup-tested or the up-and-comers?
That’s what the Stanley Cup Final comes down to when the best-of-seven series begins Wednesday in Colorado, with the Avalanche looking to play spoiler to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s attempt to become the first team to three-peat since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-84.
The Lightning, the team largely assembled by Steve Yzerman before he ditched Tampa to return to the Detroit Red Wings, is loaded with guys who know what it takes to win this time of year, while the Avs are trying to ride a highly successful regular season to the ultimate watering hole. As Colorado defenseman Cale Makar told reporters Tuesday: “They’re a team that’s looking to become a dynasty. We’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.”
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It projects to be a highly entertaining finale to the 2021-22 season, and a chance to see some of the best players in the game.
There is a multitude of tremendous players on this team, but let’s start with Andrei Vasilevskiy, the goaltender Yzerman, then Tampa’s general manager, drafted in 2012 acquiring the Wings’ first-round pick in a trade that sent Kyle Quincey from Colorado to Detroit. In the last three games of the Bolts’ conference final, Vasilevskiy held the New York Rangers to a combined three goals.
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In Round 1, he went into Toronto and held the Maple Leafs to one goal in Game 7. (Think it’s been a long time since the Wings won a playoff series? They won in 2013; the Leafs haven’t won a playoff series since 2004). This is the guy you want in goal when the Cup is on the line.
The Bolts are anchored by two guys who were there when Yzerman was named GM in 2010: Forward Steven Stamkos, who the Bolts drafted with the No. 1 pick in 2008 after finishing in last place; and defenseman Victor Hedman, drafted No. 2 in 2009 after the Bolts finished 29th out of 30. Stamkos (named captain by Yzerman in 2013) scored twice to secure the Bolts’ Game 6 victory over the Rangers and has 15 points in 17 playoff games. Hedman has 14 points, tops among team defensemen.
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The stellar supporting cast up front includes Nikita Kucherov, an Yzerman draft pick from 2011 who has 23 points in 17 playoff games; Ondrej Palat (another 2011 pick), who has 16 playoff points; and Brayden Point (drafted in 2014), who has 77 points in 74 career playoff games and has begun practicing after missing the last 10 games with a lower-body injury. Mikhail Sergachev and Ryan McDonagh, both Yzerman trade acquisitions, and Cal Foote (drafted by Yzerman in 2017) solidify a high-end defense corps.
While the Bolts bear Yzerman’s imprint, the Avs are a blueprint for how to rise from a rebuild. Their most important player is Makar, who the Avs consoled themselves with when they were pushed back to fourth in the 2017 draft lottery after finishing at the bottom of the standings. Makar, 23, is a phenomenally skilled defenseman who is the second-highest scorer still standing in the playoffs with 22 points in 14 games; his 1.57 points-per-game average tops Kucherov’s 1.35.
Makar plays a smart game, utilizing his speed when needed and dexterity to create space for himself. Makar is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, a front-runner for the Conn Smythe, and may down the road become the rare defenseman who wins a Hart Trophy.
The Avs are led up front by superstar center Nathan McKinnon, who so far has bested Connor McDavid (a 2022 Hart finalist) and Ryan O’Reilly (a Selke and Conn Smythe winner) in previous rounds. Gabriel Landeskog captains the team and has eight goals among 17 points. J.T. Compher, a former Wolverine, scored the Game 3 winner in the Edmonton series, and Darren Helm, who won the Cup with the Wings in 2008, scored the goal that secured the Avs a trip to the conference finals.
The Avs rode Darcy Kuemper to playoff success until he suffered an upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals; he was able to serve as backup in Game 4. In his absence, Pavel Francouz did a solid job. Neither guy stacks up against Vasilevskiy, however, but they may not need to given the talent in front of them. For what it’s worth, the Avs won the season series with the Bolts, 2-0.
How they got here
The Lightning finished third in the Atlantic Division. They rallied from a 3-2 series deficit against the Leafs, then dispatched the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida Panthers in a sweep. The Rangers won the first two games of the conference final — and then the Bolts took over.
Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter had a great line at the beginning of the playoffs when he told reporters that “it’s going to be a waste of eight days” for whatever wild card team faced Colorado. So it was, for the Nashville Predators. The Avs swept their way through the first round, dispatched St. Louis in six games in Round 2, and swept the Edmonton Oilers in the conference finals.
Who will win
Vegas favors the Avs: FanDuel has the Avalanche at minus-180 and the Lightning at -plus-155. BetonLine has the Avs at minus-170 and the Lightning at plus-150. BetMGM has the Avs at minus-190 and the Lightning at plus-155. When it comes to the Cup I favor experience, and predict the Bolts make it 3-for-3.
Contact Helene St. James at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.