DENVER — The Stanley Cup Final gets underway Wednesday with, in my opinion, one of the most promising and intriguing matchups in years. In fact, the entire NHL playoffs leading up to this point have been one of the most fun, chaotic and entertaining that I can remember. If you haven’t been along for the ride, you’ve missed out. The good news is that it’s not too late to hop on board.
For any new or peripheral hockey fans who may have missed the first three rounds of the NHL postseason, you have some catching up to do before tuning into Game 1 (8 p.m. ET on ABC). Luckily, I’m here to help with a “Beginner’s Guide to Enjoying the Stanley Cup Final.”
Let’s start with the basics.
Who’s playing in the Final?
Yes, it’s the Final. Singular. Please don’t say “Finals” because hockey fans will eat you alive.
Anyway, This year, we have the Colorado Avalanche, who are making their first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2001, going up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have won the Cup in each of the past two seasons.
Whoa, a three-peat is on the line?
Sure is. The Lightning can become the first NHL team to win three straight Cups since the New York Islanders won four straight from 1980 to 1983.
So who’s better?
Well, that’s why we play the series. Colorado finished the regular season with more points in the standings (119, which was good for second-most in the NHL) and is entering the series as the betting favorites (-160). But, again, this is a very promising series featuring two teams that absolutely deserve to be here.
How’d they get here?
Colorado essentially cruised to the Final, losing only two games while sweeping two series. The Avs rolled through the Nashville Predators in four games, beat the St. Louis Blues in six and then swept the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference final.
Tampa Bay had more of a difficult road. The Lightning beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, climbing back from a 3-2 series hole to win in seven games. Then they swept the Florida Panthers, who finished as the league’s best team in the regular season, before besting the New York Rangers in six games to win the Eastern Conference final.
Colorado hasn’t been here in over 20 years, but it’s suddenly just destroying everyone?
Yeah, pretty much. The Avalanche have basically been on the brink of contending for a Cup for the past few years, but they could never seem to get over the hump in the playoffs. They lost in the second round three years in a row leading up to this run.
Stanley Cup Final: Will Avalanche be rusty?
Wait, I thought the Maple Leafs were the promising team that kept losing in the second round?
No, silly. They’re the promising team that always loses in the FIRST round. And it happened again this year. Pathetic!
OK, so why is Colorado so good?
For starters, the Avs have elite, high-end talent, including two of the best players in the world. You’re going to want to keep an eye on Nathan MacKinnon (No. 29) and Cale Makar (No. 8). MacKinnon is Colorado’s best forward and is an electric offensive performer with amazing speed. Makar is the league’s best young defenseman with incredible offensive talent. He’s one of the NHL’s best skaters and can change direction on a dime. You’ll notice him.
Colorado has some really solid depth as well, but MacKinnon and Makar really lead the charge on a team that loves to push the pace and light it up offensively. The Avalanche are the team in these playoffs in terms of goals per game (4.64).
What makes Tampa Bay so legit?
The Lightning also have some top-notch talent — at every position. They have veteran pillars throughout the lineup, including forwards Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Both are remarkable offensive players. (Brayden Point, one of the league’s best two-way forwards, is entering the series injured, so all eyes will be on how effective he is.)
On the back end, Tampa has Victor Hedman, a very large man who is consistently in the discussion for NHL’s best defenseman due to his ability to produce at both ends. And the Lightning arguably have the league’s best goalie in Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is establishing a reputation as one of the top clutch playoff performers in all of sports.
Aside from that, the two-time defending champions are experienced and versatile, and they pretty much refuse to die.
Stanley Cup Final: Will Braden Point play for Lightning in Game 1?
Are there any cool storylines to follow?
You mean aside from Colorado trying to establish a legacy and Tampa trying to solidify a dynasty? Yeah, for sure.
On an individual level, there’s Lightning forward Pat Maroon, who is looking to win his fourth straight Stanley Cup. He won one with St. Louis three years ago before joining the Lightning. He’d be the first NHL player to win four consecutive Cups since a bunch of those guys on the Islanders teams in the 80s.
And then there’s Corey Perry, a veteran forward on Tampa Bay who’s nearing the end of his career and making his third straight Stanley Cup Final appearance — for his third different team. He ended up on the losing end in the previous two with the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens, falling to the Lightning both times. You know what they say: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
There’s also veteran Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson, the longest-tenured Colorado player (12 seasons) who has a pretty cool comeback story. The 34-year-old suffered a really bad concussion last year and only played four games, and he didn’t know if he’d ever play again. Now he’s paired with awesome young defenseman Bowen Byram, who also suffered a bad concussion earlier this season and didn’t know if he’d play again. Johnson helped Byram through that tough process.
So who should I root for?
Make your own life choices, friend. Both of these teams are very good and have qualities worth rooting for. It may honestly come down to whether you’d rather watch the exciting new guys dethrone the kings, or whether you’re more interested in seeing a modern-day dynasty extend a legendary run.
Yeah but who are YOU rooting for?
Not to be all “unbiased” and “professional,” but I really do not care. Both outcomes would be cool. I just hope both teams have fun. And by “have fun,” I mean I hope both teams kick the crap out of each other (legally, of course) and deliver an intense, chaotic series that we’ll remember for a long time.
And I hope you tune in, too. Hockey is fun.