The 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs have provided hockey fans with great theatre and the final act will define a decade of hockey. The stage is set for an unbelievable series between the two best teams in the league. Let's look at things from a betting perspective.
Tampa Bay Lightning (+ 150) vs. Colorado Avalanche (-175)
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was asked about the Stanley Cup Final matchup following Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final, and he said that he thought the Avalanche had the qualities of a team the Lightning would have played the last couple of years in the Final. This is the matchup a lot of hockey fans have wanted to see.
The Lightning are the back-to-back champions, and they’re looking to become just the fourth franchise in NHL history to win three Stanley Cups in a row. Colorado, meanwhile, made it past the second round for the first time since the 2001-02 season. Tampa Bay will be able to draw on its playoff experience, but the Avalanche have learned a lot and, on paper, are the better team; that’s why Colorado is listed as the favorite (-175). However, the Florida Panthers were sizable favorites (-170) in their second-round series against the Lightning. The Lightning won that series in a sweep, and it all came down to goaltending. Andrei Vasilevskiy was brilliant, making saves on 151 of the 154 shots he faced. It wasn’t that the other goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) was bad, necessarily, he just couldn’t outplay Vasilevskiy.
If there’s one area of concern for the Avalanche, it’s goaltending. Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz have gotten the job done so far, but neither goaltender is in Vasilevskiy’s league, and that’s why I estimate that the Avalanche should be priced closer to -150 (60% chance) to win the series. The Lightning aren’t likely going to be able to hold the Avalanche to one goal like they’ve done in eight out of their last 11 games, but Colorado hasn’t faced a goaltender like Vasilevskiy in a playoff series before.
The Avalanche are the best offensive team in the regular season, but the Panthers and Maple Leafs were two of the best offensive teams we’ve seen in over 25 years, and the Lightning took out both teams. Of course, Tampa Bay hasn’t faced off against superstar talent like this before: Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar are two of the greatest players of this generation, and they could probably lead a team of scrubs on a playoff run, like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl did for the Oilers. But the supporting cast, which consists of players like Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen and Devon Toews could make up a pretty good team on its own, too.
The Lightning could tip the scales a little bit in their direction if forward Brayden Point can play in the series. He was the team’s leading goal scorer on their last two playoff runs, even though some of that could be washed away if Nazem Kadri returns from his injury. Point has missed the last 10 games, while Kadri has been out since the early part of Game 3 of the Western Conference final. Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said that he isn’t sure if Point will play in Game 1, and Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar wasn’t ready to rule Kadri out for the game, either. It seemed like Point was close to returning in the last round, but Kadri skated without a stick in his hand on Sunday, which leads me to believe we might not see him until later in the series, if at all.
Heading into Game 1, the market seems to have settled around -160 in favor of the home team. That means a $100 money-line bet on the Lightning will return somewhere around $140 if they pull off the upset. I don’t think there’s quite enough value to justify a bet on the Lightning, but that will change if Point returns to the lineup. Therefore, my strategy is to wait for news, which might mean waiting until the teams hit the ice for warmups on Wednesday evening.
Colorado will win the series more often than the Lightning, but there hasn’t been a sweep since 1998, and the Lightning are sure to have a good game plan. Over the last 21 years, 16 Stanley Cup Finals have gone at least six games, and given that this is a relatively close series, I’d expect each team to win a couple of games. By my estimation, the Stanley Cup Final will feature at least six games more than 60% of the time. There should be plenty of time for the stars to shine, and while I am holding a 13/1 ticket on Cale Makar to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (whom I do think is the player most likely to win the award), I would say Vasilevskiy (4/1) is the best bet in the current market. Steven Stamkos is an intriguing bet at 15/1, but I think Vasilevskiy is the one constant. Each game, different players step up, but Vasilevskiy is always doing his job. His save percentage is just under .930, which is probably good enough given the circumstances.
The Lightning will certainly need offense from the likes of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, but Vasilevskiy is the reason they’re here. If the Lightning win their third Cup in a row, it will mean Vasilevskiy was able to close out another team, and the voters will put a lot of stock into that. Colorado is a dominant team in all situations, but the Avalanche have been especially lethal at five-on-five. They have a 60% shot share and have outscored opponents 3.8-2.4 on a per-60-minute basis. The Lightning haven’t dictated the pace like the Avalanche. In fact, they’ve been outplayed at times, but they’re right behind Colorado in terms of expected goals, which means they are efficient on both offense and defense. It might not look flashy at times, but it works.
The Lightning’s strategy is going to be put to the test in the Final, but the same can be said for their opponent. Nashville, St. Louis and Edmonton were not legitimate threats, and the Lightning certainly are. Jordan Binnington is the best goaltender the Avalanche have faced so far in the playoffs and facing off against Vasilevskiy should be a wake-up call. The Avalanche’s overall skill and talent should win out in the long run, but sometimes a seven-game series isn’t long enough for a team to figure things out, and the Lightning have a lot more experience. However, home-ice advantage, plus the fact that the Avalanche are the best team on offense and defense, means that they should be expected to win the series. There is a good chance Brayden Point will play, though, as he was a full participant in practice on Monday, and therefore I can justify betting on the Lightning to win the series at + 150.
Tampa Bay Lightning To Win Series + 150
All stats via Evolving Hockey and Natural Stat Trick; odds via DraftKings Sportsbook.