Inside the NHL
What appears an unusually strong Stanley Cup Final matchup begins Wednesday between a team trying to finally meet championship expectations and one hoping to surpass them.
It’s been nine years since the NHL had a final this good on paper, that prior one seeing the Chicago Blackhawks defeat the Boston Bruins to capture their second of three Cup titles in six seasons. This time, it’s the Colorado Avalanche seeking Cup glory after years of regular-season dominance facing a two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning squad looking to achieve what no other has in the post-2005 salary cap era.
It’s been nearly 40 years since a team did what the Lightning already have in reaching three consecutive finals, the most recent being the Edmonton Oilers in losing to the New York Islanders in 1983, beating them in 1984 and repeating as champions over Philadelphia in 1985. And no team has won three consecutive Cups since the Islanders’ four from 1980-83.
The NHL was a different league back then, with no salary cap or true free agency thus providing a recipe for maintaining championship cores.
Which makes what the Lightning are attempting truly historic. The fact they’ve now won 11 consecutive playoff series already puts them in elite company; edging closer to the 13 notched by the Montreal Canadiens of 1976-79 and the record of 19 by those four-time champion Islanders.
The question now is whether the Lightning have anything left. Already, the status of star Lightning center Brayden Point is questionable, as it was throughout the recently-completed Eastern Conference final win over the New York Rangers.
Sure, Avalanche center Nazem Kadri is also ailing, but Colorado has greater depth than anything the Lightning have faced. They have Nathan MacKinnon on a mission, standout defenseman Cale Makar and forwards Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog to throw at the champs.
The latest odds from BetOnline.org lists those four Avalanche players among the five top potential point-getters this series, with Nikita Kucherov the only Tampa Bay player in that mix.
In many ways, a Lightning squad running on fumes at times seems more similar to that aforementioned 1980s Islanders dynasty than some may realize. Those Islanders were the only other defending champion in NHL history to prevail after trailing 2-0 in a conference final, doing it during their “Drive for Five” at the dynasty’s tail end in 1984.
I remember that 1984 series vividly. The four-time champion Islanders were playing the underdog Canadiens and had lost Game 1 in Montreal in stunning 3-0 fashion. At age 15, I headed off to my hometown Montreal Forum with high school buddies Jason Denis and Stathy Dimakos to buy standing room tickets for Game 2.
Incredibly, the Canadiens pulled off a 4-2 win behind the goaltending heroics of upstart Steve Penny. There was a brawl at game’s end, with Islanders coach Al Arbour even getting into it with fans directly behind the bench. The frustrated champs were down 2-0 and appeared to be disintegrating.
But they were let off the hook.
The series shifted back to Long Island, New York, where the Islanders won Game 3 to set up a pivotal Game 4. It was tied 1-1 with under five minutes to play in the second period when Canadiens forward Mats Naslund, was awarded a penalty shot.
If Naslund scored, those Canadiens — employing a rudimentary neutral zone trap style under coach Jacques Lemaire that his New Jersey Devils later parlayed to championship perfection — rarely blew a playoff lead and likely would have won and thereafter clinched at home. But Islanders goalie Billy Smith stopped Naslund’s backhand move, Mike Bossy quickly scored for New York and us seasoned Montreal fans knew it was game, set and match.
The Islanders reverted to championship form, winning that game and the next one in Montreal and wrapping up the series back in Long Island. Montreal managed only five goals those last four games and one apiece the last three.
Now, just because something happened 38 years ago doesn’t automatically mean a repeat. But besides the rarity of a battle-depleted, multiple-defending-champion rallying from 0-2 down this deep in the playoffs, there are other similarities between today’s Lightning and those prior Islanders.
The present-day Rangers had the Lightning even more on the ropes. Up 2-0 in their series, the Rangers had a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 3 in Tampa Bay.
But they blew it, losing 3-2 late.
Immediately, I thought of the 1984 Islanders and sure enough, the Lightning and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy reverted to championship form and the Rangers were cooked. Identical to Montreal’s missed chance decades prior, the Rangers managed just five goals total in losing the final four contests — scoring just one in each of the last three.
Can the Lightning maintain that stinginess? Again, let’s look to history.
Tampa Bay was already forced to a Game 7 in the opening round by Toronto and just had that tough series comeback against a Rangers team with a superstar goalie but otherwise inferior to the Avalanche.
The Islanders in 1984 had been pushed to the limit in a best-of-five opening round series by the crosstown Rangers. By the time they’d rallied to beat a much weaker Montreal team, they had little left when facing Wayne Gretzky and his Oilers in a Cup rematch.
Though the Islanders initially kept things close, the highly-skilled Oilers — having learned playoff lessons from defeats in prior seasons — pulled away for a five-game Cup win.
And I see much the same happening this time. Though we all want a thrilling six- or seven-game series, I can easily see it being shorter in the Avs’ favor.
Sure, the Lightning are only going for a third straight Cup rather than a fifth.
But it’s all relative to the modern NHL, where even repeating once as champion is a major feat given cap-induced roster turnover, faster-paced games and best-of-seven rounds throughout. It’s taken every bit of the Lightning’s experience, grit and goaltending to avoid elimination up to now.
Tampa’s best chance might be hoping the Avalanche show rust after a long layoff. If the Lightning steal a road win or two early, their goaltending advantage with Vasilevskiy over Colorado’s Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz will loom.
Otherwise, it’s taken plenty of energy for the Lightning to get this far. And they’ll likely need more of it than they have left to overcome a supremely-skilled Avalanche squad whose time — like those Oilers of yesteryear — appears to have arrived.
Prediction: Colorado in five