2022 Stanley Cup Preview – Colorado Avalanche Vs. Tampa Bay Lightning – Who’s Winning It All?

After almost two months of grueling playoff hockey, the 2022 Stanley Cup Final matchup is set. Representing the Eastern Conference is the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are looking to win their third consecutive Stanley Cup and cement their status as a modern dynasty. From the Western Conference emerges the Colorado Avalanche, a young, high-flying group hoping to deliver after years of unfulfilled expectations. Both organizations are the standard by which other franchises should abide, the products of savvy roster management focused on collecting talent by any means necessary.

Entering the championship series, I have a 64% success rate in my playoff predictions, correctly forecasting nine out of the 14 series thus far. For a sport as prone to upsets as hockey, I’m claiming that as a win. Now, let’s dig into the matchups and underlying trends that will decide the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.

Goalies: Inconsistent Kuemper vs. Unbeatable Vasilevskiy

More than any other area of the ice, this series is likely decided by what happens between the pipes. After a stellar 2021-22 campaign in which he put up borderline Vezina Trophy numbers, Darcy Kuemper has struggled through the first three rounds. His .921 save percentage (SV%) and plus-16.2 goals saved above expected (GSAx) were both top-six marks among qualified goaltenders in the regular season. In the 10 games he’s played prior to the Cup Final, Kuemper is sporting a porous .897% SV% and a minus-5.92 GSAx, both among the worst results in these playoffs. If he can’t find his game, backup Pavel Francouz might have to take over the crease.

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For the Lightning, Andrei Vasilevskiy has experienced the opposite phenomenon. His regular-season SV% of .916 was good but not great, although he posted a plus-17.3 GSAx, one of the best marks in the league. After a shaky first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs in which he put up a .897 SV%, he’s been borderline unbeatable. The Russian netminder has won eight of 10 games since that point on the back of an impenetrable .948 SV% and a plus-10.44 GSAx, both the second-best marks from the second-round on. If he continues to make his best impression of a brick wall and add to his mythical elimination-game lore, a second Conn Smythe Trophy could be waiting shortly.

The Lightning clearly have the edge in this department. Kuemper is injury prone and lacks significant postseason experience and especially not this deep into the playoffs. His inconsistent outings thus far inspire little confidence, but the Avalanche have outscored their concerns in the crease to this point. Vasilevskiy’s excellence makes that difficult, given that he’s won the most games (61), owns the sixth-best SV% (.925), and the most GSAx since making his playoff debut in 2015 (minimum ten games played). No other goalie comes close, and it’s the most significant reason why a third-straight Cup could be heading to Tampa Bay.

Forwards: Avalanche and Lightning Overflowing with Superstars 

It’s difficult to recall a Stanley Cup Final as loaded in attack as this iteration. By points-per-game (P/GP), the Avalanche and Lightning account for six of the top-22 forwards from the 2021-22 season (minimum 41 games played) and nine of the top-100. Stretch the timeframe to the start of the 2019-20 season, and you get eight of the top-81. 

Since 2019-20, only Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have scored at a higher pace than Nathan MacKinnon’s 1.35 P/GP, with Nikita Kucherov and his 1.34 P/GP just in behind. In terms of goalscoring, Kucherov (eighth), Mikko Rantanen (ninth), Steven Stamkos (10th), MacKinnon (15th), Gabriel Landeskog (20th), and Brayden Point (35th) all occupy the top-50.

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Switching over to playoff scoring, those same trends continue into the postseason. Counting forwards to have played in at least four games, the Avalanche (eight) and Lightning (six) account for 14 of the top-91 point producers per game. Both team’s superstars have delivered, and depth pieces such as Artturi Lehkonen and J.T. Compher for the Avalanche and Nick Paul and Ross Colton for the Lightning have stepped up in crucial moments.

Even when considering the uncertainty surrounding the health of Nazem Kadri and Point, this series has the potential to be explosive. The net-minding could shut the tap-off on the scoring but for the sake of fans everywhere, let’s hope it’s a case of the former rather than the latter.

Defense: Makar vs. Hedman Highlights Blueline Battle

Although both bluelines house several top defensemen, all eyes will be on the battle between Cale Makar and Victor Hedman, two of the three players named 2021-22 Norris Trophy finalists.

The 23-year-old Makar is in a realm of his own, keeping company with the likes of Bobby Orr and Paul Coffey regarding his current rate of playoff production. Since the NHL’s modern era began in 1967-68, only those two Hall-of-Famers have posted a higher point-per-game (P/GP) rate than Makar’s 1.57 P/GP in the 2022 Playoffs. His alienlike blend of incisive edges and galloping strides combine to form a rover-like machine capable of creating offense at will.

Behind him are Devon Toews and Bowen Byram, two extremely talented defenders who comprise three-quarters of the Avalanche’s uber-mobile top-four group. Samuel Girard suffered a season-ending injury early in the postseason, but the rest of the blueline – including veterans such as Erik Johnson, Jack Johnson, and Josh Manson – have held the fort in his absence. Together, they make up a steady, versatile blueline. 

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Hedman’s pedigree speaks for itself, as the 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy winner is looking to add to his burgeoning trophy case. With 85 points in 82 regular-season games, the Swedish behemoth continues to perform at an elite level even as he moves out of his prime. He’s flanked by Ryan McDonagh, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak, forming one of the NHL’s most physically dominant defensive quartets. Further, a rotating cast of bottom-pairing defensemen such as Zach Bogosian and Jan Rutta represent imposing presences in their own right.

The Lightning look to grind down their opponents, and their collection of towering rearguards is a key component of that strategy. The Avalanche have had success carving open some lackluster bluelines, but the defending Stanley Cup champions are a different beast altogether.

Special Teams: Which Power Play Prevails?

The Avalanche’s penalty kill was a recurring issue during the regular season, recovering slightly before the playoffs to finish as the 15th-best unit at 79.7%. Most notably, they conceded the 25th-highest rate of expected goals (xGA/60) and were last in high-danger chances conceded (HDCA/60), unacceptable marks for a supposed Stanley Cup favorite.

Somehow that script has flipped ahead of the Cup Final, with the Avalanche ranking first in scoring chances conceded (SCA/60) and HDCA/60, and second in xGA/60 in the playoffs. A combination of a fully healthy roster and trade deadline acquisitions of players such as Andrew Cogliano and Lehkonen have bolstered their fledgling shorthanded units. Considering the weapons at Tampa Bay’s disposal, that’s a strong sign heading into the final series.

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The Lightning are scoring on 22.6% of their opportunities during the playoffs (eighth) but are generating the third-highest rate of high-danger looks (HDCF/60). Kucherov, Hedman, and Stamkos are three of the most prolific powerplay scorers of the past three seasons, ranking fourth, sixth, and 18th in points-per-60 on the man-advantage since 2019-20. The looming return of Point would give them another reliable scoring option. The Avalanche have their work cut out for them, but luckily, they own a potent power play of their own.

At a 31.1% conversion rate, the Avalanche power play is red-hot in these playoffs, ranking second only behind the now-eliminated New York Rangers. Trotting out the likes of Makar, MacKinnon, Rantanen, and Landeskog unsurprisingly leads to goals. That quartet should continue firing on all cylinders against a solid but unspectacular Lightning penalty kill.

The Lightning are sixth in shorthanded success in the postseason but struggled against New York’s similarly powerful power play, allowing a goal on about a third of the opportunities. If they can’t get it sorted out in time, the Avalanche could quickly grab momentum in the series through timely special teams’ performances.

2022 Stanley Cup Final Could Be All-Time Series

No matter who you decide to root for, this Avalanche-Lightning matchup could prove to be one of the best in recent memory. Both teams are committed to playing skill-based, free-flowing hockey and can trot out several of the NHL’s most decorated players. For fans of the sport, having either of these teams reach the pinnacle should accelerate an even more offense-oriented paradigm shift. What’s not to like about that?

The Verdict: Avalanche win the series 4-3

2022 Conn Smythe Trophy Watch

  1. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (14GP; 5G-17A-22PTS)
  2. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (17GP; .928 SV%; +10.1 GSAx)
  3. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning (17GP; 7G-16A-23PTS)
  4. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche (14GP; 11G-7A-18PTS)
  5. Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning (17GP; 2G-12A-14PTS)

Honorable MentionsIgor Shesterkin, New York Rangers (20GP; .929 SV%; +22.6 GSAx); Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers (16GP; 10G-23A-33PTS); Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers (16GP; 7G-25A-32PTS)

Data courtesy of AllThreeZonesEvolving-HockeyNatural Stat Trick, and the NHL.

About Marko Zlomislic 50 Articles
Marko is an aspiring sportswriter with a passion for crafting stories while using a combination of the eye-test and (shudder) analytics, which is complemented by an academic background in criminology and political science. When not covering the Seattle Kraken for Oregon Sports News, Marko can also be found pouring countless hours into various sports video games franchises, indulging in science fiction novels, and taking long runs around his neighbourhood. You can yell at him by following him on Twitter or via email at mzlomislic97@gmail.com. He also regularly produces content for The Hockey Writers.