The finals matchup is set. Both Colorado and Tampa Bay are stacked with stars, quality depth, defense and offense. Their power-plays and penalty kills are some of the best since playoffs began. Whoever wins the finals deserves the accolades and label of champion. Without further delay, it’s time to break down which team has the best chance of winning the finals and taking home both the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup.
#5 Tampa Bay Lightning v. #1 Colorado Avalanche
Roster depth, brilliant captains, best defensemen remaining, prolific passing, scoring and shot-blocking. When we think of Colorado and Tampa Bay, this is what comes to mind. Coaches Jon Cooper and Jared Bednar have stayed calm and poised, guiding their teams series after series. Many fans and analysts believe this is the best Cup finals matchup in over a decade. All the action and quality play shown nationally prove it’s hard to disagree.
The two time reigning champion Lightning should get a lineup boost especially on the power-play with the return of Brayden Point sometime this series. Despite his absence since round one’s game seven against Toronto, Tampa’s power-play stayed consistent and alert. Physical, gritty play generated from Ondrej Palat, Steven Stamkos and Pat Maroon propel the Lightning to take series leads, especially when game fives roll around. On defense and the penalty-kill, whenever elite defender Victor Hedman struggles, Ryan McDonagh, Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak, Zach Bogosian and Mikhail Sergachev step up to shot block and clog passing lanes.
Colorado swept Nashville and Edmonton, two quality teams a good part of the NHL had fits trying to contain. Despite a controversial series against the Blues, the Avalanche doubled down and outworked coach Craig Berube’s team. Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar stepped up on both offense and defense. When Darcy Kuemper couldn’t play, Pavel Francouz filled in well and closed out two series in sweeps. Pesky star Nazem Kadri may not be available to play in the series, and that might determine how physical Colorado plays in the first three games.
Series deciding matchup: Nikita Kucherov v. Cale Makar
Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar locked down Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid as best he could. The result was a four game sweep. Kucherov is much more talented, physical and ahead in his career than McDavid, adding new dimensions to his game. The younger Makar (along with Devon Toews) will have his hands full with the speedy superstar who can pass and launch the puck at any spot on the ice. Whoever wins this head-to-head gives their team the best chance of pushing the opposition around to win the series.
Verdict: This series reminds me of Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay team that went to the finals v. Chicago in 2015: high scoring, lots of speed and quality passing, and solid defense. Injuries in net stalled Tampa’s rhythm, causing coach Cooper to second guess who to start in net for games three, four and six. They were also relieved to get past the second round of the playoffs around that time. There’s a lot of the same structure in Colorado. Unfortunately for them the Lightning played stronger teams in the eastern conference. Tampa Bay’s obsession and want to win another title will establish them as the first dynasty of the 21st century.
Prediction: The Tampa Bay Lightning win the Conn Smythe and Lord Stanley’s Cup 4-2
Conference finals picks: 2-0
Overall Playoffs Picks: 9-5