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We’ve Been Waiting 33 Years For A Stanley Cup Matchup This Good

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):

1-versus-2 matchups for the Stanley Cup are rare

Stanley Cup Finals featuring teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in pre-finals Elo ratings since 1968 (after the NHL’s Original Six era)

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)

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

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.

This looks like one of history’s greatest Stanley Cup matchups

Best Stanley Cup Final matchups according to the harmonic mean of the teams’ pre-series Elo ratings, 1927-2022

Year Team Elo Team Elo Harmonic Mean Winner
1978 Canadiens 1709 Bruins 1636 1671.7 Canadiens (4-2)
1977 Canadiens 1707 Bruins 1607 1655.3 Canadiens (4-0)
1976 Canadiens 1663 Flyers 1633 1648.0 Canadiens (4-0)
1989 Flames 1642 Canadiens 1640 1640.5 Flames (4-2)
1972 Bruins 1643 Rangers 1607 1625.2 Bruins (4-2)
1985 Oilers 1630 Flyers 1617 1623.1 Oilers (4-1)
1984 Oilers 1636 Islanders 1610 1623.0 Oilers (4-1)
1983 Oilers 1630 Islanders 1609 1619.6 Islanders (4-0)
2022 Avalanche 1628 Lightning 1603 1615.2 ??
1979 Canadiens 1661 Rangers 1569 1613.9 Canadiens (4-1)
2001 Devils 1614 Avalanche 1610 1612.1 Avalanche (4-3)
1974 Bruins 1628 Flyers 1594 1610.7 Flyers (4-2)
1973 Canadiens 1637 Blackhawks 1568 1601.7 Canadiens (4-2)
1975 Flyers 1606 Sabres 1589 1597.4 Flyers (4-2)
1955 Red Wings 1606 Canadiens 1584 1594.9 Red Wings (4-3)

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

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:

The 2022 Stanley Cup Final’s got talent

Most accomplished players of the 2022 Stanley Cup Final according to Talent Score*

Player Team Pos Career This Year Last 3 Yrs Talent Score
Steven Stamkos TB C 249.3 23.8 53.7 68.3
Victor Hedman TB D 182.1 24.3 61.7 64.9
Nathan MacKinnon COL C 142.6 18.5 64.2 55.3
Andrei Vasilevskiy TB G 127.2 17.7 63.9 52.4
Nikita Kucherov TB RW 149.6 14.2 66.3 52.0
Cale Makar COL D 63.6 27.2 63.6 47.9
Mikko Rantanen COL RW 93.9 20.2 56.3 47.5
Darcy Kuemper COL G 76.8 23.5 41.2 42.1
Gabriel Landeskog COL LW 121.1 14.5 41.3 41.7

*Talent Score is based on a combination of a player’s adjusted goals above replacement (GAR) in his career, during the 2021-22 regular season and over the past three regular seasons.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

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.

Footnotes

  1. Indeed, a 1-versus-2 matchup happened 48 percent of the time during the Original Six era.

  2. A special kind of average that ensures both values in a combination are high.

  3. My spin on value stats like Tom Awad’s Goals Versus Threshold and Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares. GAR strives to better balance value between positions by ensuring that forwards get 60 percent of leaguewide value, while defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent. (You can find historical GAR data here.)

  4. This normalizes for the different scales of each dimension without giving preferential weight to any of them.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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