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Early takeaways from a surprising Stanley Cup final

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This was expected to be a dream Stanley Cup final for a neutral observer, but through two games, the Colorado Avalanche have been comprehensively better than the Tampa Bay Lightning, pummeling the defending champions with a 7-0 victory in Game 2.

Cale Makar and Valeri Nichushkin each scored a pair of goals, and we’ll get into their respective contributions to the series below, but I couldn’t help but swoon over Darren Helm’s performance in Game 2. Maybe as we get older, we gravitate to players who are in the final stages of their career, but as the Avalanche are defined by their hyperspeed pace, Helm and fellow 35-year-old Andrew Cogliano proved they have wheels too.

Helm landed 12 hits during the contest and in partial tribute to him, here are 12 hits from the opening two games of the Stanley Cup Final.

Colorado’s speed reverberates through the lineup, even the old guys have wheels too

Colorado’s defining quality is its otherworldly speed throughout the lineup, that much was evident through Game 1, and it was impossible to ignore in Game 2 where it looked like it had transported to a different era, leaving Tampa Bay in the dust. This type of pace is often exemplified through Nathan MacKinnon or Cale Makar, but it’s a prerequisite to enter the lineup for Jared Bednar. Even the old guys have wheels, too.

Darren Helm and Andrew Cogliano turned back the clocks in Game 2 with standout performances, the former playing like a pinball machine, racking up 12 hits, to go along with a goal that brought the house down at Ball Arena. Cogliano was a stellar presence on the Avalanche’s fourth line that was admittedly outchanced, adding two assists while being a steady presence on the forecheck, while acting as a perfect decoy on Josh Manson’s 2-0 goal.

Helm’s goal, in some ways, is reflective of his career overall. A blazing defensive-minded presence for the Red Wings since the 2008 playoffs where he won a Stanley Cup, Helm joined the Avalanche with another Cup in mind and on Saturday, his tremendous straight-line speed and an innate sense of how to convert defense into offense were on full display.

For context, Bowen Byram was seven when Helm won his first Stanley Cup. Helm and Cogliano’s best assets have always been their top-end speed, and it’s allowed them to contribute to an Avalanche team that is playing at the fastest tempo in the NHL.

Major Bag Alert: Valeri Nichushkin

Bag alert, major bag alert! Valeri Nichushkin and his agent, Mark Gandler, are in for one hell of a summer. Nichushkin has been the best forward on the ice through two games, no longer the forgotten man on Colorado’s star-studded top line featuring MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have been no match for the Colorado Avalanche's blistering speed as the series travels to Florida for Game 3. (Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been no match for the Colorado Avalanche's blistering speed as the series travels to Florida for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final. (Getty Images)

Nichushkin authored a virtually perfect Game 2: he scored two key goals, was robbed of a third by Vasilevskiy and when he was on the ice at 5-on-5, the Avalanche outchanced the Lightning 13-0, finishing with a 100 percent share of the expected goals via Natural Stat Trick. Nichushkin scored a goal and assisted on the game-winner in Game 1, and he’s been an indispensable part of an Avalanche lineup that has excelled even as Nazem Kadri works his way back from injury.

“He’s the full package,” Cale Makar said of Nichushkin to The Athletic’s Peter Baugh.

Primarily known as a defensive specialist prior to his breakout 2022 campaign, Nichushkin is putting together an all-around body of work that should see him easily outearn his expiring deal which pays him $2.5 million. Whether the Avalanche can retain him is a story for another day, get the bag ready for Nichushkin.

MacKinnon has played exceptionally well and is due for a barrage of goals

As the Avalanche held a 5-0 lead entering the second intermission, some joked that all they needed were goals from Makar and MacKinnon. Makar delivered with two goals — MacKinnon assisting on the latter — and the Avalanche punctuated a commanding win over the Lightning.

It should be frightening for the Lightning that MacKinnon hasn’t scored yet, and he’s certainly due to explode. MacKinnon has played exceptionally well even if it hasn’t shown up on the scoresheet just yet, and his puck support for his linemates has been evident throughout the contest. Playing 16:34 in all situations during Game 2, the Avalanche outchanced the Lightning 23-2 when he was on the ice, good for a 92 percent Corsi For and expected goals share. The defining MacKinnon game of the series is coming soon.

During the playoffs, the Avalanche have adopted blink-182’s anthemic All The Small Things as their theme song, and MacKinnon is doing all the small things right. The night will go on.

Bowen Byram not only filled Sam Girard’s skates, he’s arrived as a bonafide star

It’s been a roller coaster of a season for Byram, who suffered a concussion early in the year, briefly casting doubt upon his impending return. Byram’s role has been elevated after Sam Girard broke his sternum in the second-round series against the Blues. And though Byram wasn’t exactly a secret, the fourth overall pick from the 2019 NHL Draft has emerged as a bonafide star faster than anyone could have reasonably anticipated.

Byram played a team-high 22 minutes and 18 seconds in Game 2 — an outcome partially aided by the Avalanche’s decision to rest Makar down the stretch — but it’s a testament to the team’s trust in the 21-year-old. A smooth skater with top-pair offensive potential, Byram simply doesn’t make the mistakes that many players his age would, he’s making easy breakout passes, displays outstanding gap control and isn’t fazed by the pressure whatsoever.

Makar and Devon Toews are the best defense pairing in the league, so it seems almost unfair that they have another bonafide star in the making, under team control for another year before facing restricted free-agency entering 2023-24. Byram may not play with the flash of some of his teammates, but he’s been a monstrous presence for the Avalanche by showing the composure befitting a player a decade older.

Where does Colorado’s Game 2 win rank among the best victories in Cup history?

Jared Bednar noted that the 7-0 victory was as close to perfect as it gets, so our immediate action is figuring out where this game ranks in Stanley Cup history. We don’t have to look too far, with a little help from our friends at the National Hockey League.

Colorado became the third team ever to record a shutout in the Final by a margin of seven goals or greater, joining the 1919 Seattle Metropolitans and 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins. Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr are always good company to be in! But that’s not all: the Avalanche became the first team to score 11 goals or more during the first two games of the final, since the 1996 Avalanche!

Speaking of the 1996 Avalanche, they defeated the Panthers 8-1 in Game 2, before going on to sweep the series. It would be somewhat disingenuous to compare a post-expansion Panthers team to a two-time defending champion Lightning, but if the Avalanche continue to prove to be this superior, history may repeat itself.

Hedman and McDonagh are making a ton of uncharacteristic mistakes

Cale Makar has vastly outplayed Victor Hedman, but it’s not just the 2020 Conn Smythe winner who is making egregious mistakes. Ryan McDonagh played one of the worst games of his career on Saturday, taking a hooking penalty that led to Colorado’s first goal and he couldn’t account for Nichushkin and Gabriel Landeskog hounding him on the forecheck.

Hedman was brutal in Game 1 and didn’t fare much better in Game 2, losing Mikko Rantanen behind the net on the fourth goal of the contest. He’s not suppressing shot attempts and appears to be overwhelmed by the Avalanche’s speed. Hedman took a poor route to the puck on Helm’s goal. And perhaps most damning, Makar is completely outshining him head-to-head.

Makar’s short-handed goal is a neat summary of how the two headliner defensemen have played thus far. Bursting up the ice on a 2-on-1 scenario, a confidence also afforded by the 5-0 lead, Makar was never looking to pass. Hedman is stuck by himself but he affords Makar so much space to operate, before flopping to the ice in a last-ditch effort to block the shot. Makar is proving he’s the best defenseman alive and he’s leaving his contemporary in the dust.

In defense of leaving Vasilevskiy in

Andrei Vasilevskiy allowed seven goals, tied for the most that he’s surrendered throughout his career. It was the correct decision in my opinion. Throwing an ice-cold Brian Elliott into the game where his team had no chance would do nothing other than send a performative message to the Lightning skaters that their effort simply wasn’t good enough. They know that already. The idea that Vasilevskiy is more prone to injury when his team is down also doesn’t hold up against reason, either.

Jon Cooper defended his decision post-game:

“Vasi gives us the best chance to win a hockey game. He’s our guy. He’s going to be there in a couple nights. No. He’s the best goalie in the world, and we win together, we lose together. Even if I did (try to pull him), I don’t think he would have come out. That’s what a competitor he is. That’s why he’s the best.”

Stamkos’s impassioned speech

Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat were dominant in their four wins against the Rangers. They have been thoroughly outplayed through two games, and Stamkos offered up a passionate rally-the-troops speech after Game 2.

“Listen, people are going to be watching this game tonight and probably think the series is over. But our group, we’re a very resilient group. So whether it’s one-nothing or seven-nothing or 10-nothing, it’s a loss in the playoffs and you’ve got to move on. We’ve got to man up as a team and as a person. Let’s get back home in front of our fans, and let’s see what we’re made of.”

On a broader scale, the Lightning have earned the benefit of the doubt. But the Avalanche are unlike any team they’ve faced before. We’ll see if Stamkos proves prophetic.

Cale Makar is in pole position for the Conn Smythe

We’ve discussed Makar in detail throughout this column and it’s almost impossible not to. As a non-voting member of the hockey media, I made the case for Makar to win the Norris Trophy and he appears likely to be lifting the Conn Smythe by the end of next week. Barring an imminent offensive explosion from MacKinnon, which again, is well within the realm of possibility, it’s Makar’s to lose at this point. If it were a Finals MVP award, much like the NBA, Nichushkin would have an outside case as well, but few can argue against Makar.

If the Lightning win, it’s going to Vasilevskiy, but the comeback appears to be more theoretical than actuality at this point.

Kadri’s potential return could be the cherry on top of the sundae

Nazem Kadri appeared certain to miss the remainder of the playoffs after getting boarded by Evander Kane in Game 3 of the Western Conference final, but there’s a chance he could appear in the final. If he does, it would be an immediate boost to an Avalanche team that is already shooting the lights out.

Kadri skated with a stick in his hands throughout the week, and could be nearing a return. Recording six goals and 14 points in 13 games, Kadri was playing some of the best hockey of his career before getting taken out by Kane. It would be the culmination of an outstanding career if Kadri gets to lift the Cup, and though J.T. Compher has been remarkable in his absence, Kadri and Girard’s absences are the only thing the Avalanche can really complain about.

Sakic appears to have trumped BriseBois at the deadline

Both teams have stylistic similarities when it comes to team-building, but Joe Sakic has to be feeling pretty good about himself. Colorado and Tampa Bay built their respective cores through an array of top draft picks, then supplemented the rest of the roster with value adds in free agency. Throughout the dynastic years, the Lightning have been aggressive at the deadline, dispensing their first-round picks like candy in order to get ready-made veterans, embodying win-now mode.

In part due to the fact that they have a younger core, the Avalanche have been patient in comparison to the Lightning at the deadline. Until now. And it appears to be paying dividends.

Tampa Bay acquired Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel at the deadline, both of whom have featured in defensive-oriented roles throughout the playoffs, but have done next to nothing in the final. Colorado finally traded a first-round pick prior to the season, acquiring Darcy Kuemper (who was lights out in Game 2), then gamely acquired Artturi Lehkonen, Manson, Cogliano and Nico Sturm at the deadline. Lehkonen was the overtime hero against the Oilers, Sturm has been a positive contributor to the fourth line, while Manson and Cogliano were menaces in transition in Game 2.

No shade to BriseBois, but Sakic won the deadline.

All The Small Things

If you’ve read this far, please entertain a curmudgeonly music take!

I like blink-182 as much as the rest of you — well, evidently I don’t, y’all went crazy for them. Ball Arena was absolutely rocking as the Avalanche tramped the Lightning in Game 2 with the third period serving as an extended karaoke session. I’m not sure if a banger from 1999 is evidence of the league being cool on a broader pop culture scale, and I hate to break it to my fellow hockey media, but it’s an indication we’re getting old, and our taste isn’t cool.

It’s the ultimate home-ice advantage: 20,000 people scream-singing in Tom DeLonge’s falsetto at you seems like a unique type of hell, especially if you’re down several goals on the other side of the country. Imagine you’re losing the biggest game of your career and you hear “NA NA, NA NA, NA NA, NA, NA!” reverberating through the speakers. It would be enough to drive anyone mad, so I guess, shoutout to the Avalanche for adopting it into their game operations.

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