With Lightning Versus. Avs, The NHL Finally Gets Its Era-Shifting Final

colorado avalanche and tampa bay lightning

Hockey, being what it is, is largely strange and odd, and the Stanley Cup Final, the NHL’s showpiece, rarely produces the two best teams. We come close at times, and most seasons, it’s difficult to tell who the greatest clubs are. With shootouts and overtime nonsense affecting the standings, injuries, various schedules and divisions, and varying levels of give-o-shit during the long season, the NHL usually produces a small group of teams at the top who may all claim to be the greatest.

Even if you get beyond that, the playoffs put up all kinds of virtually impossible barriers in the way of a true primetime battle in the Final, whether it’s a goalkeeper channeling mutantdom, a succession of irritated officials, or just a handful of strange bounces off the boards or chipped ice.

Even less frequently, if at all, does the NHL receive something like what begins today. A Stanley Cup Final between the current standard-bearer, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the Colorado Avalanche, who clearly position themselves as NEXT. While there have been some excellent matchups in the previous decade (Hawks-Bruins in 2013 comes to mind), few have come with such a strong emotional component.

You’d have to go back to the Penguins’ back-to-back games against the Red Wings in 2008 and 2009. That was an old guard-new hotness vibe to it, especially when the Penguins reversed the 2008 outcome the following year. And, in the end, the Penguins did become an era-defining team; it just took them another seven years.

And the Wings weren’t defending champions for the second time. This feels even more like an Oilers-Islanders matchup from the early 1980s, however the salary cap will make it difficult for the Avs to win many titles like the Oilers did after ousting the four-time defending champion Isles. Whatever happens in the Final, the Avs will still have Nathan MacKinnon, Gabe Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Cale Makar on the while.

But they only have to get past the NHL’s most seasoned and brutal playoff club in recent memory to get to where they’ve seemed destined to be for the past two years. The Lightning didn’t flinch when they were down 3-2 to the Leafs, or when they were down 2-0 to the Rangers in both series and Game 3. It’s hard to believe they were just a game away from being eliminated in the first round; after all, Game 6 went to overtime, and yet we don’t think much of it because the Lightning don’t. They never seemed to believe they were in danger, and because of that assurance, they were never actually in danger, regardless of the scores and series.

We can’t state that beating the Lightning is the most difficult task in team sports right now because no one has done it in three seasons.

In this series, the primary question is whether anyone believes the Avs’ advantages at even strength and through the lineup, as they do, are overcome by the Lightning’s massive lead in net. Andrei Vasilevskiy hasn’t lost a playoff series in his last 11 tries, and the Avs will be without Darcy Kuemper or Pavel Francouz, who had never won a postseason series before this season. It’s the hockey equivalent, or something close to it, of Drederick Tatum vs. Homer Simpson.