Welcome to the 2022 Stanley Cup final.
It's the third straight year in which a team will try to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning to claim the championship. The Colorado Avalanche, in their first finals appearance since 2001, will be their opponent, and it was the matchup that most had expected since the beginning of the season.
While the Presidents’ Trophy curse remains, the two-time defending champion Lightning and the Avalanche, who finished first in their division for the second straight season and have lost only two games the entire playoffs, truly represent two of the best teams in the league. That has not happened very often in the cap era or in the past three seasons; with all due respect to the Stars and Canadiens, both went on surprising Cinderella runs to clinch their Finals berth, and the Blues were one of the biggest underdogs in league history.
Below are the updated BetMGM odds for the Stanley Cup champion and an updated list of playoff pool picks for leagues that allow re-drafts or trades. Players marked with a * indicate those who have moved from the “top playoff pick” category to “depth playoff pick” category or vice versa, and those marked with ** indicate a new addition based on their Conference Finals performance.
Colorado Avalanche (BetMGM Odds: 1.53)
The Avs have been the favorites all season and they’ve lived up to expectations after getting ousted by the Golden Knights in Round 2 last season after blowing a 2-0 lead. It spawned the infamous quote from Nathan MacKinnon about how the Avs “haven’t won shit”, but after blistering through another regular season and adding reinforcements at the deadline, they’re right where they wanted to be. Offense has been their calling card the entire season, and it has helped them overcome some shaky goaltending, though they did catch some breaks doing so; Juuse Saros and Jordan Binnington were both injured mid-series and Mike Smith was, well, Mike Smith.
Heading into the Finals, the Avs rank first in GF (65, despite playing fewer games than everyone else), first in GF/GP (4.64), second in PP% (31.1) and second in S/GP (40.7), with MacKinnon and Cale Makar leading the way with a total of 40 points in just 14 games. They are the two most important players on the team, and the burden on them to generate offense despite facing the toughest matchups will be even heavier since Nazem Kadri is not expected to be available to start the series. The big question mark is in net, with Darcy Kuemper expected to be 100 percent healthy and will likely be the starter for Game 1 even though backup Pavel Francouz has been statistically better and both have six wins apiece. If there’s any major adjustments the Avs make in their lineup, it’s most likely to be a goalie switch.
Special teams and timely goaltending. It’s highly unlikely either Kuemper or Francouz will outplay Andrei Vasilevskiy, so their job will be to at least mitigate the damage done by the Lightning offense, which has still yet to fulfill its potential with a handful of key players yet to make any contributions. Per naturalstattrick.com, at 5-on-5, Francouz and Kuemper rank 14th and 24th, respectively, out of 30 goalies in GSAA. It means they are below average and highly unlikely to steal any games themselves.
The Lightning tightened up defensively against the Rangers as the series progressed but didn’t have many answers for the Rangers’ power play, finishing the series with a 68.8 PK%. It’s been an ongoing problem after ranking 16th during the regular season, and the Avs certainly hold a big advantage here. It’s worth noting that the Avs and Lightning rank first and second in net penalties at 10 and seven, respectively, though Lightning games have featured far more whistles.
Top playoff picks: Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, Cale Makar
Depth playoff picks: Nazem Kadri* (inj.), Valeri Nichushkin, Artturi Lehkonen, J.T. Compher**, Devon Toews, Bowen Byram, Darcy Kuemper*, Pavel Francouz**
Player to Watch:
With Kadri out for now, potentially for the entire series and likely to be less than 100 percent even if he does return, it leaves a big void down the middle. We will likely see Mikko Rantanen back at center, where he played for short stretches during the season when MacKinnon wasn’t available and in Game 4 against the Oilers, with J.T. Compher slotting in behind him. Rantanen, who’s won just nine of 26 faceoffs (34.6%) during the post-season, will have to hold down the second line – André Burakovsky has not been particularly helpful this postseason – and provide necessary depth scoring against a Tampa defense that runs just four defensemen deep.
Compher was used in a second-line role in Game 3 against the Oilers following Kadri’s early exit in the first period, but his offensive ability is limited and ill-suited for a top-six scoring role. How the Avs plug the hole left by Kadri, especially if Brayden Point returns, which gives the Lightning better depth down the middle, could be a major factor in deciding this series.
Tampa Bay Lightning (BetMGM Odds: 2.55)
The Lightning enter the Finals as the underdogs for the third time in the playoffs following upsets against the Maple Leafs and Panthers. Their biggest strength under Jon Cooper has been their ability to win in a variety of ways, either in high-scoring games or grinding out low-scoring games. They’re just as talented and dangerous on offense as you’d expect, but they’ve also crafted a reputation for being sneaky-dirty and really tough to play against.
Bringing back Patrick Maroon and adding Corey Perry, Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel adds more grit than offensive talent, and remember that the Lightning changed their philosophy after the Blue Jackets upset them playing a shot-blocking, hit-anything-that-moves style in 2019 despite the Lightning’s overwhelming scoring talent. The Lightning have adopted some of that personality, and note that their two matchups against the Avs during the season were all decided by one-goal. Both games, including one in a shootout, were losses for the Lightning, but also remember that the Rangers swept them in their season series and it was a moot point in the playoffs.
Will the Avs’ eight-day break make them rusty or rested? It’s an important question because the series against the Rangers looked gruelling, and the Lightning had to lean very hard on their top offensive players to pull through. The Lightning’s chances obviously improve if Brayden Point is back in the lineup, and he doesn’t have to be a full-strength to make a difference; Stamkos was barely able to play against the Stars, playing one game totalling five shifts and 2:47 of ice time in Game 3, but his lone goal on his only shot provided a huge lift.
Their key to success has remained constant throughout their quest for a three-peat, and it lies in goaltending. Vasilevskiy could face his toughest challenge yet since the opening round, and after besting Igor Shesterkin still retains the title as the best goalie in the league. The Lightning also can’t let the Avs get too many power-play opportunities due to their poor penalty killing, and their scoring depth needs to improve. Alex Killorn has yet to score a goal in 17 games, while Anthony Cirelli and deadline pickups Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel have combined for just six goals.
Top playoff picks: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat*, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy
Depth playoff picks: Brayden Point (inj.), Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel, Nick Paul, Ross Colton, Corey Perry
Player to Watch:
Asides from the Brayden Point watch and the Lightning’s cadre of depth players who have yet to make an impact on offense, perhaps more eyes should be on Ryan McDonagh. The veteran defender has played second fiddle to Victor Hedman, but it’s a really important role because they lack depth on defense and he’s their best penalty killer. He drew the toughest matchup against the Rangers against Mika Zibanejad’s line and played very well, and along with Erik Cernak will likely draw MacKinnon’s line. McDonagh’s health could be a big storyline; he dressed for Game 6 even though his status was questionable, and had to leave for short stretch during the game due to an apparent injury.
Considering that Kadri and Point are questionable for this series, and that one of the goalies is Vasilevskiy, betting the under seems like the winning play. Their two regular-season matchups produced only 11 goals, and the over/under is currently set at six goals, though the over is slightly favored at 1.87 to 1.95 as of Sunday evening.
The Avs are favored by most public models, with moneypuck.com’s model putting the Avs at 56.4 percent to win the Cup, and doing it in seven games has the highest probability at 18.9 percent. Of the 14 playoff games the Avs have played so far, nine of their games (wins and losses included) have covered the -1.5 spread while the Lightning’s games have done so in 10 of their 17 games, which works out to 61.2 percent (19 out of 31) of the time. Note that the Avs and Lightning have combined for 13 empty-net goals this postseason, which rank second and first, respectively, according to morehockeystats.com. Both teams have had their share of blowout wins, which means covering the spread might be more difficult in this series.