Raise your hand if you've been waiting for this one.
In what might be the best matchup on paper in more than a decade, or even beyond, the two-time defending and irrefutably dynastic Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning are set to meet the class of the Western Conference on balance for the last several seasons, the Colorado Avalanche, in the NHL's championship series.
So often we see teams performing at the very top of their ranges for short stretches to reach the final. This year we have two of the best teams in the NHL over the last half decade locking horns, including the most successful postseason and regular season teams, respectively, over the last three years in the Bolts and Avs.
If there is Lightning fatigue among the masses: first, who hurt you? But more importantly, this matchup serves as the best chance of a total transfer of power. Either the most dominant regime, and one which has withstood a flat cap and many personnel changes, cements itself as maybe the greatest in hockey history, or it falls, and another challenger to that emerges.
This is as good as it gets when it comes to a championship series — no matter the sport.
So let's jump into the details before puck drop Wednesday night.
To suggest this is a mirror match would be inaccurate. But there's a feeling of one team — the Lightning — meeting something that resembles its former self.
If there's one thing that's led the resurgence we're seeing in the sport right now, which is a discernible uptick in scoring, entertainment and vitality, it's the influx of so many brilliant and fresh-faced superstars. But if there's a team that deserves some credit for changing the game in the last half decade, it's without question the Lightning.
Tampa Bay has been the highest-scoring, most aesthetically-pleasing team NHL-wide for the last seven seasons, and since making its first Stanley Cup Final in 2015. Among many things, the Lightning re-imagined what a dominant power play looks like, they produced the most prolific individual scoring season in the salary cap era, and they matched a record in 2018-19 with 62 wins. This team has unquestionably changed the game.
But what is also true is that the Lightning had to change themselves in order to reach their potential, which was, now at minimum, three consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances. This team doesn't overwhelm teams with irrepressible offence any more. Instead they have very much learned, in some ways the hard way, how to perform in the postseason. It is superb netminding, a relentless devotion to suffocating structure, shot-blocking, patience and forechecking first, and opportunism in the attack second.
It is not a firefight any more with the Lightning. It's creating the slimmest of margins, and the nerve and first-hand experience acquired in order to perform inside of them.
Meanwhile Colorado is the team that pushes the pace, that's looking to demoralize the opposition. They are the fastest team in the NHL with speed uniform across the lineup. Colorado applies a relentless pressure on the opposition and has experienced little resistance in these playoffs so far, having averaged nearly five goals per game. Even so there's an argument that the strength of the Avalanche is in their defense, but for more modernized reasons. Led by the best defensive pairing in hockey with Cale Makar and Devon Toews, the Avalanche skate, connect the attack, and pile up the points on the blue line. And they can defend, too, in the rare moments when it's required.
If these teams continue to do what they do best, we should see plenty of the Avalanche possessing the puck, looking to break down the walls that the Lightning have so expertly erected to win 11 consecutive postseason series.
The overwhelming versus the impossible to overwhelm.
But if there is one key mismatch, it's the situations in net.
On one hand we have the greatest postseason performer in goal in a lifetime with the unflappable Andrei Vasilevskiy in line for a second consecutive Conn Smythe Trophy for Tampa Bay. On the other it's one of two options, both of whom fail to inspire much confidence. Pavel Francouz has been really solid in place of the injured Darcy Kuemper, winning each of his six starts. But if Vasilevskiy's legacy could fill a bucket, Francouz's is worth a few drops. Kuemper has the more detailed resume, keeping highly respectable career numbers. But he's also toggled back and forth when it comes to reliability in his first season with the Avalanche.
Having just overcome the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner, Tampa Bay's counterattack could appear lethal versus either Francouz or Kuemper.
Colorado has compiled the far more impressive record, losing just twice on the path to the Stanley Cup Final with a 12-2 record overall, but its treachery can't quite compare to that of what the Lightning had to deal with.
St. Louis was without question Colorado's stiffest challenge, but the Blues finished with fewer points than all three of Tampa Bay's opponents. In fact, between the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers, the Lightning are travelling the single-most difficult path in recent memory toward their third consecutive Stanley Cup.
Credit still goes to the Avalanche for sweeping away both the Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers in the first and third rounds, respectively, and for overcoming St. Louis, a team proven to be a serious challenge already.
Under different circumstances, both teams have impressed on the path to this championship series.
One race back to the lineup could very well decide who lifts the Stanley Cup.
The Lightning have, rather remarkably, survived two rounds — versus the Presidents' Trophy winners and a team with the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner — without their second-leading scorer over the past three seasons in the playoffs and a brilliant all-situations contributor. Brayden Point has been unavailable since Game 7 versus the Maple Leafs when he suffered an apparent lower-body injury but has been threatening to return to the lineup, ramping up his workouts by the end of the Rangers series. Anthony Cirelli has done remarkable work in his place, but Point's return would be a huge boost for the Lightning, and provide them with another elite two-way driver.
Nazem Kadri, meanwhile, underwent surgery after injuring his thumb crashing into the boards in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. While his return might be easier to facilitate given the nature of the injury, it remains to be seen if he can contribute, let alone grip a stick, not long after a procedure was needed to mend the digit.
If one of either Point or Kadri can make it back and be a difference-maker, it will offer a massive advantage.
The Lightning will win if ...
They feast in transition. With Makar and Toews flirting with 30 minutes every night on average, the Lightning's best weapon — its counter-attack — could be largely neutralized, but that's likely where the offense will come from the defending champs.
The Avalanche will win if ...
The goaltending is up to snuff. It can't be average, because it's likely going to be extraordinary on the opposite side.
Lightning in 7.
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