The puck drops Wednesday night in Denver on Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, what portends to be a dream matchup between the Avalanche and Lightning — two skilled, fast, detail-oriented clubs with separate, distinct motivations to capture the title.
The Avalanche, without a trip to the finals since Bruins refugee Ray Bourque finally hoisted the Cup with them in the spring of 2001, have fallen particularly short of expectations the last 4-5 postseasons, never advancing beyond the second round. Much like the repeated playoff failures of the Sharks before them, the Avalanche have been the sexy, favored team-in-waiting, repeatedly to have their pockets picked.
Meanwhile, the Lightning are after their third consecutive title. No one has strung together three since the Islanders won four straight, 1980-83, under the expert watch of Al Arbour. A title would certify Jon Cooper’s men in blue as a dynasty, an accomplishment all the more amazing in an NHL today that features meaningful (i.e. power-altering) free agency and a salary cap.
“They’re a team looking to become a dynasty,” Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar noted Tuesday to NHL.com reporter Dan Rosen during the media day scrum, “and we’re a team that’s looking to start a legacy.”
Gary Bettman’s Original 32 make up a league engineered for balance and parity. Jeff Vinik’s Lightning keep tipping the scale their way.
“To go a third time,” Cooper mused Saturday night, after the Lightning polished off the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, rallying from a 2-0 series deficit, “is unthinkable.”
If they win, the Lightning will have clinched 12 consecutive best-of-seven series in three years, a feat never accomplished, pre- or post- the cap era. The Canadiens, with legendary Ken Dryden in net, won 12 straight best-of-sevens, but that was across four titles (1976-79) in years when they needed only 12 wins per postseason to clinch the Cup. When the Islanders won their four, each postseason opened with a best-of-five series.
All in all, there really is little to choose here between two excellent teams, each trained, and equipped, to push the pace. They are both smooth, luxury rides, loaded with options.
The Avalanche have clicked for a league-best 4.64 goals per game, helping them to series sweeps over the Predators and Oilers.
The Lightning have not been as prolific (3.06 goals per game), and needed a Game 7 to squeeze by Toronto in Round 1. But they enjoy the luxury of having the world’s best goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, buttoning up their net.
Nothing brings more “valued added” to a club’s scoring output and overall confidence like a goalie who wires his way into the opposition’s heads. Think: Habs ‘71, with the upstart Dryden torturing the likes of Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr, John Bucyk, and Ken Hodge, all of whom finished that regular season with more than 100 points. Dryden, in fact, yielded 26 goals over the seven games. The Habs, though, scored 28, including a 12-5 advantage in the last two games. The Bruins agonized over Dryden for, oh, only the remainder of the ’70s.
A win now would shoulder the 6-foot-3-inch Vasilevskiy, proud son of Tyumen, Russia, in among Dryden and Battlin’ Billy Smith, the irascible Islander tender, on the list of great playoff puck stoppers.
Colorado coach Jared Bednar as of Tuesday morning had yet to declare whether he’ll go with Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz in net. Kuemper opened the Western finals vs. the Oilers, but was injured in Game 1, leaving the Czech-born Francouz to back the wins in 2, 3, and 4 and complete the stunning series sweep. The Avalanche took the last three games by an aggregate 14-7.
The Avalanche, likely to be slightly favored in the series because of their home-ice advantage, roll behind a pair of elite forwards — Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog — and the X-factor who is Makar, the sensational defenseman who logged two years at UMass prior to turning pro.
There isn’t a blue liner in today’s game who can match Makar’s Orr-like quickness and boldness with the puck in the offensive zone. Only 23, he delivered a record 5 points (1-4—5) in the Western finals clincher, and he enters the title round as Colorado’s top playoff point producer (5-17—22).
The Bolts have arguably the game’s best defenseman in the towering, dominating Victor Hedman, but no one, save the Rangers’ Adam Fox, comes close to Makar’s ability to take over his club’s offense — and torment opposing defenses — from the back end.
If you’re of an age that you have only heard about Orr, or have seen him only on YouTube archives, Makar is the closest facsimile to No. 4 the game has seen (apologies here to Brian Leetch and Paul Coffey). Orr delivered the wow! with almost every shift, like no defenseman before him dared imagine, while Makar, working in a much faster era, is more situationally selective with his advances.
Makar is part of what also gives the Avalanche a pre-series edge: a potent power play reminiscent of the Islanders days with Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Denis Potvin et al.
The Avalanche clicked at 31.1 percent on the power play over the first three rounds, just a hair behind the Rangers (32.1). The Bolts play a disciplined game (shorthanded 3.35 times per game thus far), and they’ll have to maintain that approach. Otherwise, they’ll be minced up by the Avalanche, particularly if Nazem Kadri (wrist injury) is healthy.
It can be easy to discount the Lightning, in part because of the draining physical/mental toll of repeating. But they still have a superb collection of offensive weapons up front, including Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. It also looks as if the Bolts will have No. 2 center Brayden Point back in service after a prolonged injury layoff.
The Avalanche, because they dispatched Edmonton so easily, face the prospect of some early rust after a nine-day layoff. They had an eight-day rest after their sweep of the Predators. Rest, thus far, has been their friend.
The Bolts only clinched their berth Saturday night and should be running hot.
The emotional favorite will be Colorado. Long ago, when the Islanders were the dynasty in the making, it was the same for the Canucks in ‘82 and then the prolific Oilers in ‘83. Everyone felt inclined to back the newbie. How could the Islanders keep it going? Outcome: The Islanders swept them both.
So beware selling the Lightning short. The Avalanche indeed have it going, but Tampa Bay has a knack for getting the going gone.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.