DENVER — The salary cap era has produced its share of playoff upsets to the point where you almost assume before the playoffs that the best two teams won’t actually face each other in the end. The gap in talent has shrunk in the cap era. There is true parity. Upsets are the norm.
With that in mind, it really is refreshing to see the Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche meet in the Stanley Cup Final.
If you go back to October before the puck dropped on the 2021-22 season, and asked most people around the game for their Stanley Cup picks, Tampa Bay and Colorado were the predominant responses.
Two high-quality teams run by smart people with superstar talent and depth.
The difference, of course, lies in what’s been achieved. The back-to-back Cup champion Bolts are the gold standard, a third straight trip to the finals something I thought we would never see in the cap era given said parity.
The Avalanche, well, they hope to open their window now of multiple championships.
For my money, this is the sexiest matchup in the Cup final since Boston and Chicago in 2013 and before that Pittsburgh-Detroit back-to-back in 2008 and 2009.
I reached out to rival NHL team executives and coaches to get their take and predictions for this Cup final. Enjoy!
Head coach No. 1 via text message:
I believe the Avalanche are a juggernaut. They are in a different level in terms of being on a mission. They are focused and determined. Their speed is just off the charts.
They have three obstacles for me.
1- Experience. At some point, Tampa Bay’s experience will serve them.
2- Avalanche will be challenged (or if). When they will be, how will they react? It’s not a given to me to react the right way at this stage. Their competitive spirit can be an enemy at that time. We’ll see.
3- Kuemper will be back for the final. But still, it isn’t Vasy!!! We’ll see how big is the gap.
Also, Tampa Bay defensemen are underrated IMO. Everybody talks about Tampa like they were skill-like in the past. For me, their ability and understanding of shutting down their opponent is their strength. If Tampa can skate enough to shut down Colorado, then Tampa can win. Because of the mental edge they have, the size of their D and their goalie.
Last thing. I think Colorado had too big of a break. They will be rusty. That might give an edge to Tampa in Game 1.
I say Colorado in 7.
Head coach No. 2 via text message (picks Colorado):
“Pretty simple for me. The best two teams that we faced are there. I think it is Colorado’s time. They can overwhelm you with pace and speed but the champs are cagey…
Head coach No. 3 via text message (declined to make a pick):
“It looks and feels like it’s Colorado’s time but they haven’t faced anything like Tampa and Vasilevskiy yet so it will be the toughest challenge they’ve faced.
The injuries to Brayden Point and Nazem Kadri are real factors. If either is healthy enough to contribute that could be the separator.
Head coach No. 4 via text message:
I am going to take Colorado in 7. It won’t be easy, they will have to overcome Tampa’s experience and they will be facing a goaltender that’s clearly above anything they have seen these playoffs. Wild cards to swing series are Point and/or Kadri.
Head coach No. 5 via text message:
What a matchup. Goaltending matchup goes to Tampa. I think Vas will face a lot more quality chances vs Col. He has proven before on the last two cup runs that it may not matter what he faces. Rangers did not generate at five-on-five. Can Colorado goaltending hold up?
I like both teams D. Hedman is a beast. Makar, the same. Forward group goes to Avs. Deeper lines and more speed. Tampa has top guys that could carry them.
Point going to play? Tampa has a little more grind in their bottom 6 forwards.
It may come down to special teams. Can COL PP remain that dangerous? And can COL PK (78%) hold off Tampa’s PP? I’m going to go with Colorado but goalie matchup scares me.
Head coach No. 6 via text message:
Will be the best final in years. It’s hard to bet against Tampa as their will to win is amazing but Colorado is so good. Will be a great contrast in offence vs defence but Tampa shut down Florida’s offence. They can do it again. Tampa in 6.
Head coach No. 7 via text message:
I believe Tampa wins in 6. Tampa has the best goalie in the playoffs and plays his best under pressure situations. Tampa’s penalty kill has been better than Colorado all season and both teams have elite players on PP. Tampa will get Point back to be a difference-maker in their lineup and Colorado will now have to deal with not having Kadri. Tampa has been the best checking team in the playoffs, and will check harder than Colorado has seen yet in the playoffs. It will be interesting to see how the rust affects Colorado, not too many teams can find their game like Tampa did after losing two games.
Head coach No. 8 via text message:
I think it’s the Avs time. Will be a long series. Avs start at home and are rested. Motivated by previous failures in playoffs. Avs are faster and healthier. Tampa hasn’t played a team this deep or this fast yet in playoffs. Tampa will be outshot and out-chanced in every game of this series but Vasilevskiy is the biggest difference-maker and gives Tampa an advantage at this position obviously. He could easily steal a game for them. Both teams are facing big injury issues with Point and Kadri. If Point returns and is able to compete at a high level then that makes a huge difference. I think Tampa will have to make big adjustments to shut down Avs’ MacKinnon line especially on the road in Colorado. Need to find a way to hold the blue line and shut down their speed off the rush. Nobody has been able to do this so far. Once they enter and set up in the offensive zone no team does it better than Avs with puck possession and filtering everything to the net with a ton of traffic.
You can’t teach experience and composure. That comes from winning. That will be Tampa’s biggest asset and will make for a long series. All things considered, I believe the Avs will win the Cup.
Head coach No. 9 via text message:
This is the matchup everyone wants to see. Star power on each side. Skill mixed with size and strength. Questions for Avs are obvious: Goaltending. Will it be good enough? I don’t see Colorado continuing to average over four goals a game either. The biggest challenge is not to get frustrated when 88 does what he does! Tampa is going to face a very deep team in Avs. Pace/Skill/finish are all elite for the Avs.
Does Tampa have the depth without Point in the lineup? Obviously, their experience is huge in this series BUT……I say Colorado in 7…new Stanley cup Champ this year.
Head coach No. 10 via text message:
It’s a great matchup-gasoline on both sides.
Both have skilled and balanced groups of fwds, both have outstanding d cores, one built differently than the other. Goaltending can be the X factor in Tampa’s favour. Health is always a factor, this can turn on a dime but right now it appears to be in Tampa’s favour. Looks like a long series-Tampa in 7.
Head coach No. 11 via text message:
Good match between two high-quality teams. Tampa Bay as the 2x reigning Stanley Cup champions have understanding of what needs to occur in the final round in order to win. Colorado is driven & hungry with superstars playing at the height of their ability.
Both teams have important centers as injury question marks. Both teams with dangerous PPs, high-end skill and quality d men.
Tampa with the advantage in net and the pioneers’ advantage of having been there, done that.
Head coach No. 12 via text message:
This will be a different test for Colorado, they haven’t really seen or had to play against this type of team. TBay defends better than anyone , when they are committed and that has been this time of year…and Vasilevskiy is a huge difference maker. Should be a great series…can TBay nullify Colorado speed and if Col doesn’t get goaltending think it will be real interesting.
Toss up for me.
Tampa in 7.
Head coach No. 13 via text message:
Tampa knows how to win and has a competitive advantage in goal. If Tampa gets Point back and Hedman they will be tough to beat. Colorado has been the best team in the league. They are dynamic offensively. Their power play could be a difference maker. They are deep and dangerous within transition. Their goaltending is key to success. They need to get the timely save. Kuemper’s health is critical. Prediction: Colorado in 7.
Team executive No. 1 via phone:
It’s the matchup everyone thought at the beginning of the year, right? Maybe not necessarily at the beginning of the playoffs, because some people weren’t sure if Tampa was on their A-game or whatever, but I think at the beginning of the year a lot of pundits and people in hockey probably thought it was going to probably be Tampa and Colorado. So they got their wish. I like Tampa here. I had them winning it before the playoffs. I still like Tampa because of their coach and their goaltender. He’s the best goaltender in the world. I think they’re going to get Point back. Whether he’s 100 percent or not, that’s going to be a lift. Tampa is just so focused on details. They get it done, they do the simple things. They’ve got their mojo and they’ve been there before, that speaks volumes especially in hockey more than any other sport — the experience factor. …
I’m taking Tampa. Even in that New York series when they were done 2-0, I was confident they would do it. I think they can win in any way. Colorado is good, it will be a good series, it’ll go 6 or 7. But I’m taking Tampa.
Team executive No. 2 via text message:
I like Avs in a long series if they keep somewhat healthy. Tampa has the experience, edge in net and most likely getting Point back. But I think they have played a ton of hockey lately and in the past couple of seasons. Will be a long series and I believe the Avs will ultimately wear them down once the rust is off. Avs are deep, fast and they will get it going. It will be important for Avs to get Kadri back at some point. If any games get into a shootout, Avs can outscore TB, I believe.
Team executive No. 3 via text message:
I’m actually really looking forward to this series. It’s really tough to pick the winner. I feel like Tampa hands down has the best goalie in the world. So that goes to them. Herman and Makar kind of cancel each other out. They both have stars out in Point and Kadri. If Either are able to play that will swing it in the other team’s direction. Forward wise MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog cancel Stamkos Kucherov and Cirelli. I worry Tampa might be tired because they played so many games the last 3 years but with all that said I’m going to go with the champs one more time. I wanted to say Colorado but I can’t bet against Vasilevskiy.
Team executive No. 4 via text message:
Colorado to win. The Avs have the team speed that can swing momentum — they have arguably the best player in Makar — and the Avs are ripe and due. They have been favourites all season and will finish it off in 6 games.
Team executive No. 5 via text message:
This final is going to be exciting! Colorado has been the best team in the league (and certainly the West) for the last 2+ seasons. They are obviously fast, offensive and physical — great group of forwards and defence, big-time star players throughout the lineup starting with MacKinnon and Makar but also Landeskog, Rantanen, Toews — Kadri, if healthy, and Colorado is getting good goaltending from both guys. All that said, and as great as they are, they haven’t been in a series against the 2-time defending Cup champions, so this will be their biggest challenge by far! Additionally, there is the Vasilevskiy factor… so it should be an awesome Cup Final series. I have Colorado in 6 maybe 7.
Team executive No. 6 via text message:
Vasi is the x-factor in my opinion because he’s head and shoulders above whoever the Avalanche start in net.
My inclination is that Colorado will control the play with their depth and pace but will require that extra volume and high event style to overcome what will be the best goaltender and defensive structure that they’ll have faced in the post-season. Based on the goaltending we’ve seen for the Avs, Tampa won’t need as many quality chances to get goals on the scoreboard.
Series prediction: There’s world-class talent and depth on both sides, but Colorado’s goaltending is the one area on either team that leaves me uneasy. I just don’t trust it. It might be a white-knuckle experience for the Lightning but Vasilevskiy is the difference in the end. Tampa Bay in 6.
Team executive No. 7 via text message:
Tampa is going to be the favourite to win this series in my opinion. They just know how to win and don’t ever seem to be rattled. Despite the injuries and opportunities to rest on their laurels they continue to push forward and find ways to win games. Tampa has the clear edge in goal with Vasilevsky over Francouz and Kuemper.
On the back end, Colorado was more than formidable against Edmonton and their stars. Makar will be the best defenceman on the ice in this series and it appears that Tampa’s group are battling injuries as we’ve seen a few of them go up and down the tunnel in the Ranger series. I’d give the edge to Colorado on the blue line with Makar and Toews being as good as you get in the league right now.
Up front, Tampa made some great moves at the deadline to bolster their depth and bring back some sandpaper that they lost in free agency last summer. Point is currently out though Tampa seems to be ‘point’-ing to his return in the final; whether or not it’s true, only time will tell but if it is then his return combined with the loss of Kadri for Colorado gives Tampa a big advantage up front. Colorado is a two-line team right now and Tampa just has more depth to go along with their explosive-fired power up front.
It should be an exciting series to see the stars on these teams face off for the Cup but experience, depth and goaltending favour the back-to-back champs and I think they will do the seemingly impossible, and win their third Cup in a row.
Team executive No. 8 via text message:
This is the first real goalie the Avalanche have faced for a sustained period. Even with the ultra skill on the Lightning, they can play a real disciplined, managed game. If Point comes back healthy, close edge to TB in 7. Goaltending, experience and depth (with Point).
Team executive No. 9 via text message:
It’s going to be a Stanley Final for the ages! The two best teams in the league will slug it out like heavyweight prizefighters. The series is packed with some of the NHL’s brightest stars: MacKinnon, Makar, Landeskog, Kucherov, Stamkos, Hedman and more.
These teams are evenly matched. It will be an extremely high-paced series that may very well need all seven games to decide the outcome.
In the end, I give the edge to Tampa with Vasileskiy as the difference-maker.
Team executive No. 10 via text message:
The league could not have asked for a better matchup than Tampa and Colorado. Tampa is pushing for a third consecutive Cup and Colorado is young, excited and hungry to get over the top.
There was a lot of talk pre-playoffs about Tampa’s two `Covid Cups’ but their performance in this year’s playoffs by disposing of three terrific teams should quiet that thinking.
Goaltending: Clear advantage to Tampa. Vasilevskiy is the best goalie In the league and clearly focused on leading his team to their third straight Cup. Kuemper is inconsistent and Francouz will need to be Herculean to carry his team to victory.
Defence: Advantage to Colorado on mobility and puck-moving ability. Advantage to Tampa on size, physicality and grit
Forward: As a group, advantage to Colorado on speed and skill. Advantage to Tampa forwards on heaviness and experience.
Depth: advantage to Colorado on the back end and up front.
Coaching: While Bednar has done a terrific job guiding the ship this year, the advantage goes to Tampa as a result of Cooper’s experience and track record of back-to-back Cups.
Hunger factor: A tie
Experience: Clear advantage to Tampa
While Colorado is more exciting to watch, barring injury, based upon goaltending, coaching, experience and the apparent hunger, I believe Tampa will win their third straight Cup.
Team executive No. 11 via text message:
Fabulous matchup between, in my opinion, the two best teams. It should be a great showcase for the League with high-caliber offences and stars on both sides.
Both teams are well-coached and both did a really nice job filling some holes and adding depth at the deadline. Tampa has the experience edge and the goaltending edge.
My heart says Colorado (“It’s their turn!”) but my head says Tampa (defence, goaltending and championship pedigree) …
Fuck it, Colorado, in 7.
No surprise how close the picks are. Just about a 50-50 split of the votes. I won’t go over all the factors again as these coaches and execs have done a good job laying it all out.
It’s a total toss-up of a series. I’ve honestly changed my mind a dozen times in terms of picking a winner. It really does feel like Colorado’s time, their deserved turn to open their championship window after carefully building and tweaking a spectacular roster.
But I keep coming back to the goalie matchup and struggle to envision Vasilevskiy losing four games in this series. He beat some high-octane offences in Toronto and Florida in the opening two rounds, the 1-2 teams in the regular season in goals per game. Now Tampa faces the playoffs’ offensive machine, Colorado tops with an average of 4.64 goals per game. Just crazy. I could easily, easily see Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar bring this home. But I can’t get past the goalie matchup.
The Bolts make it three in a row. Tampa in 7 games, with Game 7 going to overtime!
(Top photo: Ron Chenoy / USA TODAY)