All year long, we wondered whether the unique circumstances of the 2021-22 NHL season — with a deep field of contenders and scoring at a generational high — would collide with the playoffs’ usual reputation for unpredictability to deliver an extra dose of chaos. But in the end, this postseason has instead given us a hockey rarity: the two clear-cut best teams in the sport facing off with the Stanley Cup on the line. So when the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning play Game 1 of the Cup final Wednesday night in Denver, it will begin a battle of truly historic proportions.
The Avalanche and Lightning earned their spots atop the league. They’ve gone a combined 24-7 in the playoffs so far, as Colorado dominated the competition out West while Tampa Bay vanquished a tough trio of teams to win its third consecutive East crown. Now that the dust has settled, the Avs and Bolts rank No. 1 and No. 2 in our Elo ratings, respectively, marking just the third time in the past 20 years (and the first since 2009) that the Stanley Cup Final was a matchup of 1-versus-2 in the rankings.
Going back to 1927, when the NHL took over sole control of awarding the Cup, only 29.5 percent of finals matchups have featured Nos. 1 and 2 in Elo going into the series. And that includes a long period of time when the league had just six teams, with four making the playoffs.1 Since the Original Six era ended in 1967, this is only the 14th 1-versus-2 battle for the Stanley Cup (in 54 tries):
|Season||No. 1 Team||No. 2 Team||Winner|
|2022||Colorado Avalanche||Tampa Bay Lightning||??|
|2009||Detroit Red Wings||Pittsburgh Penguins||Penguins (4-3)|
|2008||Detroit Red Wings||Pittsburgh Penguins||Red Wings (4-2)|
|2001||New Jersey Devils||Colorado Avalanche||Avalanche (4-3)|
|1997||Philadelphia Flyers||Detroit Red Wings||Red Wings (4-0)|
|1995||Detroit Red Wings||New Jersey Devils||Devils (4-0)|
|1989||Calgary Flames||Montreal Canadiens||Flames (4-2)|
|1987||Edmonton Oilers||Philadelphia Flyers||Oilers (4-3)|
|1985||Edmonton Oilers||Philadelphia Flyers||Oilers (4-1)|
|1984||Edmonton Oilers||New York Islanders||Oilers (4-1)|
|1983||Edmonton Oilers||New York Islanders||Islanders (4-0)|
|1978||Montreal Canadiens||Boston Bruins||Canadiens (4-2)|
|1976||Montreal Canadiens||Philadelphia Flyers||Canadiens (4-0)|
|1972||Boston Bruins||New York Rangers||Bruins (4-2)|
They’re even rarer (3-for-17) in the salary cap era, when it has been more difficult to build a dominant team with financial might alone. Usually, at least one of the best teams suffers a bad bounce or a down game along its playoff journey and is booted prematurely. That it didn’t happen to the Avalanche or Lightning is a testament to each side’s talent and determination, which should be on full display over the next few weeks.
In fact, this looks like one of the best Stanley Cup Final pairings in decades, at least on paper. Sticking with Elo ratings, the Avalanche enter the series with a 1628 mark, which is the 12th-highest since 1927 for a finals favorite and the highest since the Calgary Flames had a 1642 rating on the eve of the 1989 final. For their part, the Lightning’s 1603 Elo is the 10th-best since 1927 for an underdog and the highest since the Avalanche (of all teams) went into the 2001 final with a 1610 rating. If we combine the two ratings using their harmonic mean,2 the 2022 final ranks as the ninth-best in history and the best since 1989.
|1955||Red Wings||1606||Canadiens||1584||1594.9||Red Wings (4-3)|
Such a historic battle hinges on the greatness of the individual players on each roster, and there will be no shortage of star power involved in this series. To quantify a player’s performance and reputation at any given point in his career, I concocted what I’m calling the Talent Score, which is calculated by multiplying a player’s adjusted goals above replacement3 (GAR) in his career to date by his GAR from the regular season in question, multiplying that by the player’s GAR from the previous three regular seasons, and then taking the cube root.4 According to this measure, Lightning captain Steven Stamkos ranks as the biggest star in the series, combining his 249.3 career adjusted GAR, his 23.8 GAR this season and his 53.7 GAR from the past three seasons to give him a Talent Score of 68.3:
|Player||Team||Pos||Career||This Year||Last 3 Yrs||Talent Score|
But Stamkos is not the only big name in the series. The two playoff rosters combined feature five players with Talent Scores of at least 50 and a grand total of nine with scores of at least 40, the latter of which is tied (with 1997, 2001 and 2002) for the second-most players with that level of accomplishment heading into a Cup final since 1927. Just as was the case with the Lightning and Avalanche’s team-level Elo ratings, these two teams have also assembled more individual talent than any other finals combo of the salary-cap era.
Even one of these star-studded groups was supposed to be rare with the league fixating on parity and competitive balance. So to have two exist in the same season — and then to have them both survive the playoffs and meet for the Stanley Cup — is a particularly special treat for hockey fans. Whether Tampa Bay becomes the NHL’s first three-peat champion since the 1980-83 New York Islanders or Colorado finally cashes in on its vast potential (and our model gives the Avs a 62 percent chance to win the series), this titanic matchup is a good bet to deliver an amazing series for the viewing public.
Check out our latest NHL predictions.