Avalanche vs. Lightning: 2022 Stanley Cup Final Preview

With the conclusion of the Eastern and Western Conference Finals, the 2022 Stanley Cup Final is set to be contested between the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning aim to win their third consecutive Stanley Cup and become the first team since the New York Islanders won four in a row between 1980 and 1983. The Avalanche, meanwhile, look to win the third championship in franchise history, and first since 2001.

2022 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Tampa Bay Lightning Colorado Avalanche Final
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Colorado Avalanche (The Hockey Writers)

The Avalanche and Lightning represent the NHL’s elite franchises, stocked with superstar talent at every position. Their respective management groups have constructed elite rosters with cunning signings, opportunistic trades, and strong drafting, and set the standard for organizational excellence. No matter which club emerges victorious, both deserve their place under the sport’s brightest lights. With that, let’s dig into five of the most significant trends, matchups, and storylines set to define the 2022 Stanley Cup Final.

Goaltending: Darcy Kuemper vs. Andrei Vasilevskiy

As both the Avalanche and the Lightning boast a cadre of superstars at both ends of the ice, the series could be decided by which netminder performs better between the pipes. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to pad an already Hall-of-Fame calibre resume, and sports an inhuman record in elimination games over the course of the Lightning’s dynastic run. When the stakes are at their highest, the Russian goalie stands tall without fail.

Vasilevskiy enjoyed a strong regular season, posting a .916 save percentage (SV%) that ranked 13th among goalies to have played at least 10 games, and plus-17.3 goals saved above expected (GSAx), fourth in the NHL. The reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner has elevated his already-stellar play in the playoffs (as usual), submitting a .928 SV% (fourth among goalies with at least four games played), and a plus-10.1 GSAx (third). The Lightning are a formidable foe, even when discounting Vasilevskiy’s presence, but with him they become a juggernaut.

Auston Matthews Toronto Maple Leafs Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy makes a save on Auston Matthews (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Staring down Vasilevskiy in the Avalanche crease is Darcy Kuemper, acquired from the Arizona Coyotes prior to this season to replace the outgoing Philipp Grubauer, who himself was a Vezina Trophy finalist in the 2020-21 season. His regular season showing made general manager Joe Sakic look like a genius, as he performed at a borderline Vezina level for most of the campaign. He finished fifth in SV% (.921) and produced a plus-16.2 GSAx (fifth), helping the Avalanche to the best record in franchise history. His spotty injury history aside, the 32-year-old netminder looked capable of backstopping Colorado to the promised land.

Unfortunately for both Kuemper and the Avalanche, the playoffs have been filled with inconsistency in the net. An accidental stick through the mask kept him sidelined for a brief period, and he’s yet to deliver the same calibre of performance he demonstrated during the regular season. In 10 games over the first three rounds, Kuemper has posted a .897 SV% and an underwhelming minus-5.92 GSAx, both among the worst marks in these playoffs. Luckily the Avalanche are a buzzsaw at 5v5, controlling 58.5% of all shots (SF%) while owning a 56.7% share of expected goals (xGF%). Kuemper doesn’t need to outduel Vasilevskiy, he just needs to be close to average for Colorado to take the edge in this series. Can he reproduce his sturdy regular-season performance?

Special Teams: Avalanche Penalty Kill vs. Lightning Power Play

Few teams are truly impenetrable in the salary cap era, and the Avalanche are no exception. Apart from their occasionally suspect goaltending, their penalty kill is the most significant point of concern. Colorado’s penalty kill is currently running at a 75.7% success rate for the playoffs, ranking 10th out of 16 teams. Despite staring down the NHL’s two most dominant power-play assassins in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Avalanche finished their series against the Edmonton Oilers with an 81.8% success rate, killing nine out of 11 total opportunities. Given the Lightning’s own carousel of power-play merchants, those results should offer a sliver of confidence for the Avalanche penalty kill.

What’s remarkable is that the Avalanche’s woeful penalty-kill results have done an abrupt about-face in these playoffs. They allowed 27.3 high-danger chances per-60 (HDCA/60) during the regular season (last in the NHL), but are only conceding 10.9 HDCA/60 in the postseason, the best rate of the 16 qualified teams. They also rank first in scoring chances conceded (SCA/60), and second in expected goals allowed (xGA/60). It’s foolish to fully buy into results coming in a much smaller sample of games. Still, the additions of Andrew Cogliano and Josh Manson have helped shore up their penalty kill, with the pair ranking fifth and sixth respectively in shorthanded ice time in these playoffs.

PK%79.7 (15)23.9 (8)PP%
Goals Against7.34 (15)8.16 (10)Goals For
Expected Goals Against7.91 (25)7.75 (13)Expected Goals For
Scoring Chances Against55.2 (18)55.88 (15)Scoring Chances For
Avalanche penalty kill and Lightning power play compared by several per-60 advanced metrics during the 2021-22 regular season with NHL ranks in parentheses

If the Avalanche thought that they were getting a reprieve from the power-play dominance of Edmonton’s dynamic duo, the Lightning boast a number of potent weapons of their own. Among skaters to have played in at least 200 minutes with the man advantage since 2019-20, the Lightning can trot out the fourth- (Nikita Kucherov), sixth- (Victor Hedman), and 18th-highest (Steven Stamkos) scorers in terms of powerplay points per-60. Hedman (second) and Kucherov (third) lead the way in primary assists per-60, while Stamkos also sits seventh in goals per-60 as the unit’s primary triggerman.

While Tampa Bay’s power play has clicked at a solid-but-unspectacular 22.6% success rate (eighth) in the playoffs, it has continued to generate a heavy volume of chances. The Lightning have created 28.62 high-danger chances per-60 (HDCF/60) through three rounds, the third-highest rate of this postseason. Those numbers have come without the presence of center Brayden Point, who ranks 102nd in points per-60 and 51st in goals per-60 on the power play in the aforementioned three-year span. If he returns at any point in this series, the Lightning become even more formidable in this respect. Can a revamped Avalanche penalty kill hold the fort?

Avalanche vs. Lightning: Battle of Forward Depth

Although both the Avalanche and Lightning have seen their offensive superstars produce at the level expected of them, each team’s group of depth forwards has provided a significant boost further down the lineup.The trade which yielded Artturi Lehkonen, the unexpected hero of the Western Conference Final, has paid handsome dividends. The 26-year-old forward tallied nine points in 16 regular-season games after joining the Avalanche, and has already eclipsed that total with 11 points in 14 postseason appearances. He has capitalized on his second line promotion in the aftermath of Nazem Kadri’s injury, and his six goals are tied for third on the playoff roster.

Elsewhere, two-way force Valeri Nichushkin is following up a strong regular season with nine points in 14 games while wreaking havoc with his monstrous frame and ferocious forechecking prowess. Similarly, J.T. Compher has been used in a second-line role at times, scoring several momentum-shifting goals against the St. Louis Blues and the Oilers. I’d be remiss if I ignored the contributions of Cogliano and Darren Helm, both underrated veterans providing poise and determined defensive play against some of the NHL’s top offensive talents. If the Avalanche are to overcome their Eastern Conference foes, that pattern of depth scoring must continue.

For the Lightning, Nick Paul (seven points in 17 games), Corey Perry, and Ross Colton (both with eight in 17) are the nondescript cogs which keep the engine running. Paul in particular fashioned a memorable two-goal performance in Game 7 of the first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, continuing general manager Julien Brisebois’ absurd return on investment with trade deadline acquisitions. Patrick Maroon and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare combine with Perry to form an antagonistic checking line, with Brandon Hagel, Anthony Cirelli, and Alex Killorn rounding out a dominant middle- and bottom-six group.

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Star talent aside, the Lightning may not be vying for a third consecutive Stanley Cup if it weren’t for Ondrej Palat, Tampa Bay’s seventh-round pick in the 2011 Entry Draft. The pending unrestricted free agent (UFA) has stepped up in Point’s absence, sitting second on the team in both goals (eight) and points (16). With the New York Rangers threatening to curtail the Lightning’s hopes at a three-peat, the 31-year-old winger scored four goals and eight points in six games, including a pair of last-minute game-winners to bring the defending champs from the brink. Each team’s superstars have and should continue to deliver, meaning the Final is likely to be decided by which supporting cast performs best.

Lightning Forecheck vs. Avalanche’s Puck-Moving Blueline

One of the most entertaining battles encased within this year’s Stanley Cup Final is the one that is to be waged between the Lightning’s unforgiving forecheck and the Avalanche’s collection of dynamic puck-moving defensemen. Colorado’s blue line contingent is the NHL’s best at retrieving the puck and facilitating quick and clean zone exits leading to chances in transition.

23-year-old Cale Makar, the current Conn Smythe Trophy favourite, is the prototype for the new-age NHL rearguard, kickstarting counterattacks through a combination of crisp passes and slalom-like gallops around oncoming forecheckers. Only three defensemen completed their zone exits with possession more often than Makar’s mark of 77.9%, but only Charlie MacAvoy approached the Avalanche star’s volume of attempts. Perhaps more impressive is that despite his immense workload, Colorado’s one-man breakout machine also posted the seventh-lowest rate of botched retrievals and failed exits per-60. Makar functions as a fourth forward in attack, a key factor in his playoff production.

In the NHL’s modern era (post-1967), there have only been four individual playoff campaigns by a defenseman more productive than Makar’s current postseason rate of 1.57 points per game (minimum four games played). Of those four, three belong to either Bobby Orr or Paul Coffey, two of the league’s best-ever offensive blueliners. If Makar scores five points in this series, his 2022 playoff performance moves into the top-five all-time in points by a defenseman, despite playing considerably fewer games than his historical contemporaries.

Prior to Samuel Girard’s season-ending injury, the Avalance could reliably deploy four defensemen who turn defensive zone retrievals into zone exits at an extremely high rate while not conceding possession. His absence elevates Bowen Byram’s role in the lineup, and the 21-year-old defender has responded with poise befitting a 15-year veteran. It’s criminal that Devon Toews is relegated to a footnote in this section, since his understated puck movement keeps the Avalanche’s engines running when Makar takes a breather. Few teams can deploy a single defenseman as effective as Colorado’s dynamic triumvirate, so the Avalanche truly enjoy an embarrassment of riches.

Cale Makar Colorado Avalanche
Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

During the regular season, only the Carolina Hurricanes successfully retrieved a greater proportion of their dump-ins than the Lightning, with the Eastern Conference champions recovering the puck 39.6% of the time. The difference between Tampa Bay and the Columbus Blue Jackets (35.5%) in third is equivalent to the difference between third and the Rangers in 20th. Although the Lightning can and do play with skill off of the rush, they are arguably the NHL’s most versatile attacking group, seamlessly adapting to the opponent at hand.

For reference, the Avalanche have faced the fourth- (Nashville Predators), 21st- (Oilers), and 22nd- (Blues) ranked dump-in recovery teams in their run to the Final. Compared to the Predators, the Lightning are better equipped to create offence after recovering the puck, meaning the Avalanche must quickly recalibrate their zone-exit approach. The Avalanche create most of their scoring chances off of the rush which makes this matchup a decisive factor in the outcome of this series.

Although most of the Lightning’s bottom-six group are capable forecheckers, Maroon, Colton, and Cirelli are their most effective in terms of volume and recovery. It’s wholly unsurprising that Tampa Bay’s main trade deadline adds, Hagel and Paul, were among their previous team’s strongest forecheckers, and their relentlessness sets the stage for their offensive superstars to capitalize on a worn-down opposition. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

Avalanche Neutral Zone Transition vs. Lightning Zone Entry Defense

The Avalanche sliced through the Western Conference much like how they slice through the neutral zone in transition: with remarkable ease. According to Corey Sznajder’s tracking data, the Avalanche are creating 2.6 entries leading to scoring chances per-60 at 5v5, almost 0.4 such entries per-60 better than the next-best team in the Florida Panthers. Their playoff performance is an extension of their regular-season play, in which they completed the second-most controlled zone entries (with possession) per-60 and turned those into scoring chances at the league’s third-highest rate.

Over half of the Avalanche’s forwards grade out as above-average in completing clean zone entries, with Nathan MacKinnon, Nazem Kadri, and Andre Burakovsky leading the pack during the regular season. Mikko Rantanen has significantly boosted his efficiency in the postseason, ranking third on the team in both controlled entries and entries leading to a scoring chance per-60. Trading for Lehkonen gave them another strong transition player, and he’s created entries into chances at the fourth-highest clip among Avalanche forwards in these playoffs. The fact that one of the team’s best skaters in this regard in Kadri is doubtful to return during the Cup Final means the Finnish winger becomes even more important in facilitating the team’s high-flying attack.

Artturi Lehkonen Colorado Avalanche
Artturi Lehkonen, Colorado Avalanche (Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Overall, Tampa Bay concedes controlled entries more often than average, but is adept at ensuring teams struggle to fashion notable chances after gaining the zone. The Lightning’s defensive group is much more mobile than that of Colorado’s other playoff opponents, but they have potential weak spots for the Avalanche to target with their offensive strategy. During the regular season, Mikhail Sergachev, Zach Bogosian, and Cal Foote failed to protect the zone on over 60% of entry attempts, with Bogosian in particular ranking within the bottom third of chances allowed off of zone entries. Fortunately for the Lightning, their most utilized rearguards are also their best zone entry defenders, meaning head coach Jared Bednar must find a way to get his neutral zone wizards away from Tampa Bay’s blue line pillars.

The Lightning dealt with the Panthers quite handily, emphatically stymying their livewire offence built upon speed through the neutral zone. If they can successfully employ the same game plan against the Avalanche, their chances at a three-peat become more favourable. Unlike the Lightning’s state rivals, Colorado’s attack is much more versatile, mixing in a healthy serving of offensive generation off of the forecheck and cycling in the offensive zone. If the Avalanche can adapt to the Lightning’s tighter defensive structure, they should continue to manufacture scoring chances with regularity.

Avalanche vs. Lightning: Will the Student Become the Master?

The Avalanche and Lightning resemble reflections in a mirror, only separated by geographical boundaries. Both franchises have built their success on the back of high draft picks, savvy roster construction, and a commitment to exciting play on the ice. While Tampa Bay is gradually approaching the end of its Stanley Cup contention window, Colorado’s younger, but equally as talented, group looks to establish a fearsome reign of their own. Regardless of where fans’ loyalties lie, this series promises to be one of the most exciting in recent memory; let’s hope it delivers.

The Verdict: The Avalanche win the series 4-3 and capture the third Stanley Cup in franchise history

Data courtesy of AllThreeZones, Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL.

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