By Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
It’s taken eight months – almost to the day – and the 2021-22 NHL season is down to its final two teams. The Tampa Bay Lightning will defend their crown against the Colorado Avalanche in a series that, on paper, has the potential to be one of the best Cup Finals in recent memory. Tampa enters the series as the back-to-back Cup champs while The Avs haven’t sipped sweet champagne from the silver chalice in over 20-years.
Each team is deserving of its spot in The Final and each took its own path to get there. But they are not the only story left in the league.
There are over a half-dozen quality Head Coaches seeking new employers. The winners of the major awards have yet to be announced. Nobody knows if Montreal will pull a stunner at The Draft and knock Shane Wright off his presumed perch. Hundreds of players need new contracts. Speaking of players, there’s a new, viral video of a star player in a compromising situation. And oh, by the way, there’s a good old controversy in New York.
Each of these stories could fill an entire notebook but we’re short on space so let’s stay in New York and let the others go; at least for now.
KAKKO’S HEAD SCRATCHING SCRATCH
Saturday night marked the end of the Rangers’ unexpected run to The Eastern Conference Final. And while the Blueshirts were outplayed by Tampa Bay throughout much of the series, the final game was shrouded in mystery. Rangers’ Head Coach Gerard Gallant scratched a healthy Kaapo Kakko for Game Six, even though he knew Ryan Strome was hurt and instead chose to insert Dryden Hunt into the lineup.
Now, you could point out that Kakko only had a handful of points during the playoffs and say his performance warranted a healthy scratch. I can’t argue with you from a points perspective. However, there’s no denying Kakko had been a key part of the Rangers’ “Kids Line” – along with Alexis Lafreniere
and Filip Chytil. The Finnish forward’s work below the goal line had been an instrumental part of the line’s success. But Gallant never seemed to trust the line all that much. Which leads us back to the startling choice to play Hunt over Kakko.
Even if the coach didn’t like Kakko’s points totals he can’t deny the younger winger was playing better than Hunt. Plus, with Strome dealing with a hip injury (the precise nature of which is still being determined) Gallant would have been smart to keep the kids together. Instead, he benched Kakko, separated Chytil and Lafreniere and refused to explain his decision; both during the game to ESPN’s Emily Kaplan and again after the game to multiple Blueshirts reporters.
It wasn’t until Monday’s breakup day that he offered the explanation that he was just “trying to dress the best lineup.” Please, by a show of hands, who believes Hunt gave the Rangers a better chance to win than Kakko? Oh and let’s add the cherry on top, Gallant didn’t even feel the need to talk to Kakko beforehand to let the kid know he wasn’t playing. For a coach who is known as a master motivator and an excellent communicator he failed this time.
I’m not going to get into how the scratching may or may not affect Kakko’s relationship with the team – he’s a restricted free agent – but there’s no way it can sit well with the kid; even if he said all the right things during his media availability on Monday.
STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Now that we’ve gotten that out of our system, let’s attempt to peer into the future and see what the Stanley Cup Final holds for us.
As we mentioned at the top of this column, Tampa enters the series seeking its third consecutive Cup championship. The NHL hasn’t seen a three-peat since the Islanders’ four-peat from 1980-83. Can the Lightning do what hasn’t been done in roughly 40-years?
Yes. Yes they can. The question is, will they?
The Avalanche have the better offense. It’s not by much, but Colorado’s speed and skill are a smidge better than Tampa’s. On defense, the Lightning boast Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh. The Avs see Hedman/McDonagh and raise one Cale Makar. The presumed Norris Trophy winner has been otherworldly this season and in the playoffs. The scary part? He’s not even in his prime yet. Hedman is no slouch and McDonagh is above average, but Makar may as well be another star forward out there for Colorado.
The one area where this matchup is lopsided is in net. Tampa has Andrei Vasilevskiy. He’s the best goalie in the world; especially in the playoffs. Colorado’s tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Pavel Francouz, while enough to get the Avs to The Final, is no match for Vasilevskiy.
Jon Cooper and Jared Bednar are both superb Head Coaches and will have their team’s ready to do battle come Wednesday night. But the X-Factor will be a returning Brayden Point. If Point is fully healthy then Tampa will be more than capable of matching the Avs’ firepower on offense.
My prediction: Lightning in Six.