Victor Hedman, Nathan Mackinnon, Steven Stamkos

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)

SeasonNo. 1 TeamNo. 2 TeamWinner
2022Colorado AvalancheTampa Bay Lightning??
2009Detroit Red WingsPittsburgh PenguinsPenguins (4-3)
2008Detroit Red WingsPittsburgh PenguinsRed Wings (4-2)
2001New Jersey DevilsColorado AvalancheAvalanche (4-3)
1997Philadelphia FlyersDetroit Red WingsRed Wings (4-0)
1995Detroit Red WingsNew Jersey DevilsDevils (4-0)
1989Calgary FlamesMontreal CanadiensFlames (4-2)
1987Edmonton OilersPhiladelphia FlyersOilers (4-3)
1985Edmonton OilersPhiladelphia FlyersOilers (4-1)
1984Edmonton OilersNew York IslandersOilers (4-1)
1983Edmonton OilersNew York IslandersIslanders (4-0)
1978Montreal CanadiensBoston BruinsCanadiens (4-2)
1976Montreal CanadiensPhiladelphia FlyersCanadiens (4-0)
1972Boston BruinsNew York RangersBruins (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

YearTeamEloTeamEloHarmonic MeanWinner
1978Canadiens1709Bruins16361671.7Canadiens (4-2)
1977Canadiens1707Bruins16071655.3Canadiens (4-0)
1976Canadiens1663Flyers16331648.0Canadiens (4-0)
1989Flames1642Canadiens16401640.5Flames (4-2)
1972Bruins1643Rangers16071625.2Bruins (4-2)
1985Oilers1630Flyers16171623.1Oilers (4-1)
1984Oilers1636Islanders16101623.0Oilers (4-1)
1983Oilers1630Islanders16091619.6Islanders (4-0)
2022Avalanche1628Lightning16031615.2??
1979Canadiens1661Rangers15691613.9Canadiens (4-1)
2001Devils1614Avalanche16101612.1Avalanche (4-3)
1974Bruins1628Flyers15941610.7Flyers (4-2)
1973Canadiens1637Blackhawks15681601.7Canadiens (4-2)
1975Flyers1606Sabres15891597.4Flyers (4-2)
1955Red Wings1606Canadiens15841594.9Red 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*

PlayerTeamPosCareerThis YearLast 3 YrsTalent Score
Steven StamkosTBC249.323.853.768.3
Victor HedmanTBD182.124.361.764.9
Nathan MacKinnonCOLC142.618.564.255.3
Andrei VasilevskiyTBG127.217.763.952.4
Nikita KucherovTBRW149.614.266.352.0
Cale MakarCOLD63.627.263.647.9
Mikko RantanenCOLRW93.920.256.347.5
Darcy KuemperCOLG76.823.541.242.1
Gabriel LandeskogCOLLW121.114.541.341.7

*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.

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