The NHL playoffs, despite being one of the most thrilling sporting spectacles on the planet, are a grind. Hockey is so physically brutal, and in-game mistakes are punished so severely, that by this point in the postseason, your average Stanley Cup finalists can look like heaps of uncased sausage meat. The unpredictability of playoff hockey sometimes rewards a more conservative style of play, so by the time the Cup gets raised, the sport’s biggest and most proactive stars are often playing golf. Or playing for the IIHF World Championship, which is even more meaningless than golf.
Not in 2022. This season, five of the eight first-round series went the distance, and two others went six games. In the series that followed, big players stepped up in big moments, huge leads were built and then surrendered, and the longer the playoffs progressed, the clearer it became that every surviving team would be a compelling Cup finalist.
Even among all the fun possibilities, the hockey gods threw up a doozy: The Tampa Bay Lightning, the best team of the 2020s, against the Colorado Avalanche, the best team of 2022. This matchup contains everything neutral fans could want: two well-rounded, high-scoring teams, loaded with star players, each with something to prove.
Here are the 26 most important names to know—on and off the ice—for this showdown of titans.
26. Bob Christianson, composer, NHL on ESPN Theme
This is the first Stanley Cup final since 2004 to be broadcast in the United States on ESPN. Please stand for the national anthem.
ESPN’s studio panel was less memeable than the league’s other American cable partners, Turner, but it’s good to have hockey back in a place where it might attract new viewers.
25. Jared Bednar, head coach, Colorado Avalanche
Bednar’s first season after taking over from Patrick Roy, 2016-17, was a tough one. At the time, Colorado’s 48-point season was the worst since the NHL adopted the shootout in 2005-06. So even though Colorado has led the West in points percentage two years running, it’s taken a while for Bednar’s reputation as a coach to catch up. But it has now. Plus, nobody on an NHL bench wears a suit better than Bednar; even his duck hunting gear is tailored. The man looks like if Captain Pike did CrossFit. Get him a ring.
24. Denis Potvin, Hockey Hall of Famer
When the Lightning clinched their third straight conference title over the weekend, some old dude named Wayne Gretzky who works for TNT compared Tampa Bay to the early 1980s New York Islanders, the last NHL team to win more than two Stanley Cups in a row. Their fourth title, in 1983, came over Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers, who would go on to win four titles in the ensuing five years. So Joe Smith of The Athletic called up former Islanders captain Denis Potvin to ask whether he thought the comparison fit.
“Absolutely,” Potvin told Smith. “I don’t think it’s a major secret. How well you defend is how you win Stanley Cups. … [F]or me, it was how well we all defended as a team, as a unit, that gave us the edge. And I see that in Tampa.”
Many years ago, a team had to block off every title for half a decade—like Potvin’s Islanders, or Bill Russell’s Celtics, or Whitey Ford’s Yankees—to be considered a dynasty. More recently, as the leagues have gotten bigger, with more playoff rounds and talented players distributed more evenly thanks to spending restrictions, the definition of “dynasty” has loosened somewhat. Now a team that experiences sustained success with a stable inner circle could be called a dynasty with as few as two or three titles to its name.
I’d argue that the Lightning are already in that category. Since Tampa Bay made its first Cup final under Jon Cooper in 2015, the roster has remained surprisingly stable: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy are all still on the team. And in the past four years, the Lightning have added a Presidents’ Trophy, three straight Cup final appearances, and two titles (with a third potentially on the way). If they knock off Colorado, they’ll not only achieve the first NHL three-peat in almost 40 years, they’ll do something no MLB, NBA, or NFL team has done since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers. It’s one thing to claim dynastic status, but quite another to have universal agreement on the matter.
23. Corey Perry, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
22. Ross Colton, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
21. Brandon Hagel, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
20. Pat Maroon, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning
19. Darren Helm, C, Colorado Avalanche
18. Artturi Lehkonen, LW, Colorado Avalanche
17. Nick Paul, F, Tampa Bay Lightning
16. Julien BriseBois, general manager, Tampa Bay Lightning
The key to surviving the two-month grand guignol of the NHL playoffs is not only star power, or great defense, or mental toughness, or great goaltending. (Though it’s not not about goaltending.) It’s depth. Can your team’s bottom-six forwards hold the fort while the likes of Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon are on the bench? Can they chip in the odd goal at important times? Can they keep their wits about them with Connor McDavid or Artemi Panarin on the other side of the faceoff circle? And when injuries strike—as they will every team—can they play up a line or two and keep the train rolling?
It’s extremely difficult to amass reliable depth under the salary cap, because paying a premium for good checking-line forwards would render a team unable to sign or retain its star players. (Some in hockey circles call this phenomenon Vancouver Canucks Syndrome.) So savvy GMs, like BriseBois and Joe Sakic, have to find creative ways to fill in the gaps: midseason trades, developing young players, and convincing ring-chasing veterans to sign for the league minimum.
As much as this has been a postseason for the stars, with McDavid and Leon Draisaitl averaging two points a game each before they bowed out, these role players have scored some of the most important goals. Last year it was Colton, a rookie fourth-round pick, who recorded the Cup-winning goal for Tampa Bay. Paul, a midseason trade acquisition, has scored three playoff goals in his NHL career, but two of them were Tampa Bay’s only two goals in Game 7 in the first round against Toronto. It was Helm who potted the series-winner in the conference semifinal with six seconds left in Game 6, and Lehkonen who scored in overtime to finish the conference-finals sweep of Edmonton. A team might devote 25 or 30 minutes of ice time per night to its bottom two lines, and both Colorado and Tampa Bay have recognized the importance of winning those minutes.
15. Joe Sakic, executive vice president and general manager, Colorado Avalanche
Sakic and his front office deserve tons of credit for bringing the Avs to their position at the pinnacle of the Western Conference. Since Sakic took over in May 2013, Colorado has [takes a deep breath] drafted MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Mikko Rantanen, and Bowen Byram; they’ve coaxed career years from Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky, fleeced the Islanders for Devon Toews, fleeced the Maple Leafs for Nazem Kadri, cut bait on Philipp Grubauer at exactly the right time, and assembled the depth that helped them escape the second round for the first time since Sakic was a player.
Speaking of which. It’s great that Sakic’s front office has equaled the job done by BriseBois, the cap savant. But it’s so much cooler that the man who built this team is also [hedges here to avoid pissing off the Peter Forsberg and/or Patrick Roy diehards] its greatest-ever player. That when captain Gabriel Landeskog had to decide whether to tempt fate by touching the Clarence Campbell Bowl, Sakic was right there to implore him to “touch the damn thing.”
I did a lip read of the Avs will they touch it moment. pic.twitter.com/Jy2H84eB0B— Nathan Rudolph (@Nathan__Rudolph) June 7, 2022
That’s just how you’d draw it up.
14. Mikko Rantanen, F, Colorado Avalanche
13. Gabriel Landeskog, LW, Colorado Avalanche
Bednar has chosen to split up his top three forwards at times this postseason, but these two, along with MacKinnon, have driven Colorado’s offense for years. Rantanen and Landeskog represent the two ideals of the complementary top-line player: the creator and the destroyer. Rantanen is a great generator of offense; he was on the ice for an NHL-leading 54 power play goals this season. Landeskog, who’s been Colorado’s captain since he was a teenager, delivers big hits, scores tough goals in the slot, and plays with the kind of gravity that allows his skilled teammates more room to play with. That balance has made this trio one of the NHL’s best for the past six years.
12. Victor Hedman, D, Tampa Bay Lightning
Hedman is the player you’d draw up if you were asked to create a defenseman from scratch: 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, with great skating skills and vision for a player of such preposterous size. He’s won a Norris Trophy, a Conn Smythe trophy, and this year, he posted career highs in goals (20) and points (85). He’s a force in all three zones, at even strength and on special teams. He’s everywhere—perhaps even hiding under your bed at this very moment.
11. Jon Cooper, head coach, Tampa Bay Lightning
A complete list of head coaches who won three Stanley Cups in the expansion era (since 1967-68): Scotty Bowman, Al Arbour, Glen Sather, Joel Quenneville. Only one other, Fred Shero, has won two Cups in that time with two other Finals appearances, so even if the Lightning lose, Cooper’s still in elite company. Bowman is also the only coach from any era of NHL history with at least 500 games behind the bench and a better career regular-season points percentage than Cooper’s .650.
It helps to coach extremely talented teams, but many of the men who have achieved less than Cooper with more talented players are in the Hall of Fame.
10. Steven Stamkos, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Primarily known as an elite triggerman in his youth, Stamkos has remade himself—like Sakic and Steve Yzerman—as a well-rounded and more leadershippy center. Which is not to say he’s stopped scoring; Stamkos broke the 100-point mark for the first time in his career this season, and his nine playoff goals include the series-winner in the conference finals.
9. Darcy Kuemper, G, Colorado Avalanche
8. Nazem Kadri, C, Colorado Avalanche
7. Brayden Point, C, Tampa Bay Lightning
Both Colorado and Tampa Bay are in this position in part because they’ve been fairly fortunate on the injury front. But even so, both teams are still scrambling to get back to full strength. Kuemper, who missed the last three games and 32 minutes of the conference final with an upper-body injury, says he’ll be back for the Cup final. Cooper told reporters on Sunday that Point, last seen in Game 7 against Toronto, will recover from a lower-body injury in time to play at some point this series. Kadri, who needed surgery on his thumb after being boarded by Evander Kane in the conference finals, might not be so lucky. He’s skating, but not practicing yet, and his plan to return this series looks like wishful thinking compared to Point’s. The Cup could very well go to whichever team gets its second-line center back first.
6. Nikita Kucherov, RW, Tampa Bay Lightning
As 100-point seasons become more and more common, it’s easy to forget that the highest-scoring individual season of the 21st century does not belong to McDavid, Draisaitl, or an old-timer like Joe Thornton: It belongs to Kucherov, who put up 128 points in 2018-19. Perhaps that fact would be closer to top of mind had Kucherov not missed most of the past two seasons with injuries. (Or “injuries,” as critics of BriseBois’s creative salary cap management might put it while chomping on a mouthful of sour grapes.)
In 47 regular-season games this year, Kucherov scored at a 120-point pace, and he leads all remaining players with 23 points this postseason. He’s still one of the most dangerous players in the world with the puck on his stick, and one of the least likely to wear a shirt on a boat.
5. Marcin Goszynski, performance rehabilitation specialist
4. Andy O’Brien, strength and conditioning coach
3. Nathan MacKinnon, C, Colorado Avalanche
In Game 5 of the conference semifinal against St. Louis, MacKinnon used a stunning coast-to-coast dash through the entire Blues team to complete his hat trick and give Colorado a 4-3 lead.
It was a spectacular finish, with MacKinnon almost dropping the puck through his skates before dinking it over the shoulder of a bewildered Ville Husso. But as great as the shot and the stickhandling were, it was MacKinnon’s skating that made it such a memorable goal. “He’s on his horse,” said the announcer, as if anyone with that balance, acceleration, and speed didn’t have stronger legs than your average horse. It’s all about lower body strength. Herb Brooks said, “The legs feed the wolf.” I say, “The thiccer the thighs, the sicker the mitts.”
In the offseason, MacKinnon takes instruction from Goszynski and O’Brien, two trainers who have worked with numerous top-end athletes, including Sidney Crosby. (MacKinnon and Crosby are both from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, and hang out a lot off the ice, I don’t know whether you’ve heard. Nobody talks about this much.) In the past few years, MacKinnon has grown from a talented teenager into an anthropomorphic locomotive, one of very few players on the planet who could score that Game 5 goal. As dangerous as the Avalanche are top to bottom, at some point in this series they’ll need a moment of individual magic, and MacKinnon is the man to conjure it.
2. Cale Makar, Defenseman, Colorado Avalanche
For my money, the best player in this series is not the former Hart Trophy winner (Kucherov), the former goalscoring champion (Stamkos), the Vezina winner (Andrei Vasilevskiy), the Norris winner (Hedman), or the all-deking, all-leg-pressing MacKinnon. It’s a 23-year-old who scored 28 goals and 86 points in the regular season, and a team-leading 22 points in the playoffs. It’s a guy who skates like Nathan Chen by way of Allen Iverson.
And he does it all from the blue line. At five-on-five with Makar on the ice, the Avs are outscoring opponents 26-15 and outshooting them 367 to 238; those differentials are second and first, respectively, among defensemen this postseason. Colorado has plenty of talent on defense—Byram and Devon Toews in particular have been exceptional on the back end—but nobody translates defense to offense like Makar.
1. Andrei Vasilevskiy, Goaltender, Tampa Bay Lightning
In today’s NHL, when a team builds up the kind of depth Tampa Bay has, it often has to cheap out on goaltending. That makes sense. Goalies are unpredictable, and the better the team in front, the less influential the goalie. Of the six NHL teams who employ goalies with a cap hit of more than $6 million, only two made the playoffs and only one made the final four: Vasilevskiy’s Lightning. And even though his $9.5 million cap hit—third-highest among NHL goalies—means Tampa Bay has to play fast and loose with injured reserve and turn over its bottom six every summer to make it under the cap, he’s worth every penny.
Since 2017-18, Tampa Bay’s goalies have played 5,382 minutes in 86 postseason games. Vasilevskiy has played all but 18 of those minutes (shout-out Louis Domingue). Over the three straight runs to the Cup final, he’s 46-19 with seven shutouts. When the Lightning went down 0-2 to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference finals, it was the first time Vasilevskiy had lost consecutive postseason games since 2019.
Colorado had the third-most goals in the NHL this season and has four lines of forwards who can put the puck in the net. But in four games against Florida, the no. 1 offense in the NHL, Vasilevskiy stopped 151 out of 154 shots on goal, including a hysterical 49-shot shutout in Game 4. Florida’s Sergei Bobrovsky had solid numbers in that series—a .919 save percentage—but Vasilevskiy was so good that the Lightning outscored the Panthers 13-3 despite getting outshot 154-126. That’s how much Vasilevskiy tilts the ice, not that Stamkos, Kucherov, and Hedman usually need this level of help.