If you're a fan of the NHL, or even a sports fan in general, it doesn't get much better than what's on tap for the Stanley Cup Finals. If the NHL could handpick the matchup for the Finals, there's a good chance it would have been this one.
In one corner, you have the Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche opened as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup in the preseason, and have maintained that role throughout the whole season. Currently, Colorado is a -190 favorite to win the series. The Avalanche have been dominant, finishing the regular season with the second-best record in the league and following that up by going 12-2 through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
However, their final challenge can best be described as the "ultimate boss." The Tampa Bay Lightning enter as the winner of 11 straight playoff series, and more importantly, are back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Some might argue they are already a dynasty, but a third straight championship would certainly cement that legacy. The Lightning look to become the first team to win three straight Cups since the New York Islanders of the 1980s, who won four straight from 1980 to 1983. Despite their championship pedigree, Tampa Bay is a +155 underdog to win the Stanley Cup.
The Avalanche opened the season with the best odds to win the Stanley Cup, and Tampa Bay opened with the third-best odds. The Vegas Golden Knights had the second-best odds, but they failed to make the playoffs. While this matchup between the Lightning and Avalanche is intriguing, oddsmakers certainly have a side they'd rather see win. “The Avalanche are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup and have been a big problem from a liability perspective since BetMGM posted opening odds. The sportsbook is cheering for the Lightning to lift the Cup," said BetMGM trader Christian Cipollini. Will they get their wish?
Analyzing the series
On paper, the Colorado Avalanche are the better team in this series. They have more elite talent and game-breaking skaters than the Lightning do. Nathan MacKinnon is probably the best forward in this series while Cale Makar is the best defenseman. That's a large part of the reason why the Avalanche are prohibitive -190 favorites to lift the Stanley Cup. However, thankfully for the Lightning, the games are played on a sheet of ice and not a sheet of paper.
So what's Tampa Bay's most likely path to winning this series? The obvious answer is the correct answer, and we have already seen it firsthand earlier in these playoffs.
The Avalanche are a high-flying offensive team that is scoring 4.64 goals per game in these playoffs. They finished the regular season fourth in the league in goals scored. However, in these playoffs, the Lightning have already eliminated the league's highest scoring team (Florida) and second-highest scoring team (Toronto). Tampa Bay was down 2-0 in the conference finals against the Rangers, but then proceeded to rattle off four straight wins. They gave up just five goals over those four games and only one of those goals was not on a Rangers' powerplay.
In a series where the Avalanche have most of the advantages on paper, it's the Lightning who might have the biggest.
In the regular season, not much separates Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and Avalanche netminder Darcy Kuemper. This past season, Kuemper had a .921 save percentage compared to Vasilevskiy's .916. If you stretch that over to the past three seasons, Kuemper is at .920 while Vasilevskiy is at .919. For their careers, Vasilevskiy has a .919 save percentage, edging Kuemper's .918 mark. Both were top-six goaltenders in terms of goals saved above expectation this past regular season.
The playoffs are a different story. Vasilevskiy obviously elevates his game, earning a reputation as the biggest of big-game goaltenders. Over the last three playoffs, Vasilevskiy has a .931 save percentage and has saved 42 goals above expected in 65 games. In his last eight series-clinching games, Vasilevskiy has given up two goals total, with six shutouts.
The opposite is true for Kuemper, who has a .907 playoff save percentage over the last three years, well below his regular season numbers. He currently has a -5.83 goals saved above expectation in these playoffs, the worst mark of any netminder. This doesn't even consider the fact that Kuemper has left two games early and missed four starts already in this postseason due to a lingering eye injury.
Styles make fights. If the Avalanche get their way, they'll likely want to play faster and more high-event hockey, hoping their talent advantage shines through. If the Lightning get their way, which they seem to do more often than not, they'll want to play lower-scoring, lower-event games and hope their goaltending advantage gets it done for them.
What else to watch for
There's plenty of storylines in this series. As mentioned above, the clash of styles and the goaltending matchup are two big ones, but they're not the only two.
Both teams feature a star forward who is currently injured, and it's believed both will attempt to give it a go sometime in this series. For the Lightning, Brayden Point has been out since Game 7 of the first round, but he's been skating and looks poised for a return early in the series, potentially in Game 1. For Colorado, Nazem Kadri was injured in Game 3 of the conference finals. He's been skating, but his return has more uncertainty surrounding it.
It'll be interesting to see what extent Jon Cooper goes to in order to control matchups on the road. When he put Anthony Cirelli with Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel last series, the series flipped on its head. The trio absolutely neutralized the Rangers' top line at even strength the last four games of the series, allowing no goals. In these playoffs, Cirelli has been matched up against Auston Matthews, Aleksander Barkov and Mika Zibanejad and given up just four goals total at even strength. Can the trio shut down Nathan MacKinnon in this series?
Finally, the Avalanche haven't played since last Monday and will have eight full days off before Game 1. Last round, it was Tampa Bay in this situation and it certainly made an impact as the rust was hard to shake off. The Lightning fell behind two games to none, and Vasilevskiy in particular was not his usual self. The Lightning survived the 2-0 hole against the Rangers, but if Tampa Bay gets out to an early series lead in this one, it'll be a tough hole for Colorado to climb out of.
How to bet the series
The Avalanche open the Stanley Cup Final as -190 favorites to win it all. Those odds translate to a nearly 66% implied probability, which certainly feels steep. MoneyPuck.com has Colorado winning this series just over 59% of the time, while Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic has it 55-45 in favor of Colorado after an adjustment for team heaviness.
While Colorado deserves to be the favorite here, the -190 price is not something I'd be willing to lay. Tampa Bay at +155 feels like the value side here. If you're looking to bet the Avalanche, it might be best to wait. As mentioned above, rust could be an issue early in the series for Colorado and if Tampa Bay wins one of the first two games on the road, better odds will be available on the Avalanche.
The Lightning are a -130 favorite to cover the series spread of 1.5 games. In order to cash that bet, you'd need the Lightning to either win the series or at least force a Game 7. Colorado is a +110 underdog to wrap this series up in six games or less. If you think there will be a Game 7, you can bet over 6.5 games at +200 odds. It would not be surprising at all to see this series go the distance.
The over/under for goals in this series is currently set at 32.5 games. It's certainly a fun market to bet, but not one that is easy to handicap due to all of the variables involved.
Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen are co-favorites to lead the series in goals at +650. The Lightning duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are both +700. Brayden Point, who is expected to return from injury early in this series, has led the playoffs in goals each of the last two seasons. He's 12-to-1 to be the leading goalscorer of this series.
In a series filled with superstar talent, there are some intriguing head-to-head props you can bet on. Cale Makar is a -150 favorite to finish the series with more points than Victor Hedman. Nathan MacKinnon and Nikita Kucherov are both -115 as to who will finish with more points between them.
Colorado is a -160 favorite in Game 1 on their home ice, but that number has moved down from -175. Currently at BetMGM, 52% of bets and 66% of the betting handle is on Colorado to win the series opener, so this is certainly an interesting case of reverse line movement.
Stats courtesy of Evolving-Hockey.com and NaturalStatTrick.com