On Wednesday night, the puck will drop on the 2022 Stanley Cup Final between the Western Conference champion Colorado Avalanche and the Eastern champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are looking to win their third straight championship. This will be a star-studded affair, featuring Nathan MacKinnon, Cale Makar, Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and others.
The crew from Daily Wager and ESPN Chalk are here to look ahead at the series as well as present their top picks for Game 1.
To catch all of the action, tune into ABC and ESPN+, where you can find every game of the series. Set your reminders to 8 ET for the first contest from a packed Ball Arena in Denver.
For the first time since 2009, the top two preseason betting favorites will meet in the Stanley Cup Final. Do you agree with the Avalanche being favored (-175 series price) over the two-time defending champs?
Anita Marks, ESPN Sports Betting Analyst: Yes. The Lightning have the best goaltender on the planet in Andrei Vasilevskiy, but the Avalanche are the better team. Tampa Bay struggles against high-powered offenses, but Colorado presents a different challenge because its players are so physical. I don't believe Vasilevskiy will be able to stop Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon, who help the Avalanche average close to five goals per game.
Joe Fortenbaugh, ESPN Sports Betting Analyst: Tampa Bay's series price of +155 implies a 39% chance of winning. Really? How many of you agree that the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions -- who boast one of the sport's elite goaltenders -- have just a 39% chance of hoisting the Cup once again? Tampa Bay's path to the Final featured three opponents that recorded 110 or more points during the regular season (Maple Leafs, Panthers, Rangers). Conversely, Colorado's path included three opponents that recorded 109 or fewer points during the regular season, not to mention shaky goaltending options in Connor Ingram (Nashville), Ville Husso (St. Louis) and Mike Smith (Edmonton). The Avalanche could most definitely win this thing; I just think their price is a bit inflated, which presents value in the underdog Lightning. My pick: Lightning +155
Greg Wyshynski, Senior NHL Writer: I was a little surprised by the series price when it was released. It's only been inflated since then. What's exciting about this series is that betting either of these teams could be easily justified without the cases seeming the least bit fraudulent. My series pick is the Avalanche.
Am I confident in that pick? Hell no. That's the Tampa Bay Lightning over there. They excel at two things, primarily: identifying and exploiting the weaknesses their opponents, no matter if they're offensive or defensive juggernauts; and winning Stanley Cups. But I do think Colorado has an advantage in speed, in offensive depth and especially in Cale Makar, who is the kind of offensive X factor who makes game-planning against Colorado so difficult. The Avalanche also are an underrated defensive team, especially on the road. As Makar said, "They're a team that's looking to become a dynasty, and we're a team that's looking to start a legacy."
I'll take the legacy. Avalanche to win the series.
Lightning vs. Avalanche: The road to the Stanley Cup Final
Check out the best moments of the postseason from the Lightning and Avalanche ahead of their Stanley Cup Final Game 1 matchup Wednesday night.
If Colorado wins, can anyone other than Cale Makar (+160) win the Conn Smythe Trophy (awarded to the playoff MVP)?
Marks: Yes, MacKinnon (+230) can win it, but Makar is more deserving. Makar has five goals and 17 assists in just 14 games this postseason and has reached 50 career playoff points in the fewest games by a defenseman. MacKinnon deserves consideration, and it will ultimately come down to who will have a more prolific Cup series.
Wyshynski: No, provided Makar maintains his scoring rate. MacKinnon is having an incredible postseason. Makar is having a history-making one. Remember, the Conn Smythe is for the entirety of the playoffs. In Round 1, Makar's 10 points in the win over Nashville set an NHL record for the most by a defenseman in the first four games of a postseason. In Round 3, Makar and Devon Toews were tasked with winning the 5-on-5 battle against Connor McDavid. The Avalanche earned over 57% of the shot attempts and 56% of the expected goals when they were on the ice. If Makar finishes this round with 1.57 points per game, it will rank as the third greatest offensive postseason by a defenseman in NHL history (minimum of 14 games) behind the Oilers' Paul Coffey in 1985 (2.06) and the Bruins' Bobby Orr in 1972 (1.60). The next highest after Makar? Brian Leetch of the Rangers in 1994 (1.48). Guess what trophy he won?
On that note, if Tampa Bay wins the series, which Lightning players have betting value to win the Conn Smythe?
Marks: Nikita Kucherov (+360) has been the driving force for the Lightning this season on offense. He leads the team with 23 points in 17 games, and he was vital to Tampa Bay coming back from a 2-0 deficit against the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final, with 8 points in that series.
Wyshynski: I think Anita is on to something with Kucherov, especially since he didn't win the Conn Smythe in either of the previous two championship seasons. But if the Lightning are going to win the Stanley Cup, it'll likely be because goalie Vasilevskiy (+400) shut the door on the playoffs' best offensive team. He has been brilliant since a rough first round against Toronto. Vasilevskiy closed out his much-hyped goalie duel against the Rangers' Igor Shesterkin with four straight wins and a .955 save percentage in those games.
His status as a closer is legendary: Vasilevskiy has 13 career series-clinching wins and has stopped 219 of 221 shots in his past eight series-clinching wins. If he has another dominant elimination game against the Avalanche, his legacy as one of the best postseason goalies in hockey history will be cemented, and he could be the first goalie to win back-to-back playoff MVP honors since Bernie Parent for the Flyers in 1974 and 1975.
Sachin Dave Chandan, ESPN Betting Editor: Vasilevskiy would be the most likely Lightning to take home the trophy, as he did last year; but captain Steven Stamkos (+1600) and even Ondrej Palat (+7000) could have a long shot of a chance here. Being the leading goal scorer doesn't always mean you're a Conn Smythe favorite, but it typically gets you in the discussion. Stamkos leads the Lightning with nine goals, while the left winger Palat is second on the team with eight goals, including two game winners. Clutch, third-period goals can go a long way in getting you votes.
High-scoring Colorado hasn't faced a goalie as talented as Tampa Bay's Andrei Vasilevskiy thus far in the playoffs. How confident are you in Colorado to score over 3.5 goals a game?
Wyshynski: Not incredibly confident. Tampa Bay is going to try to play this series to the margins, like it did against the Rangers, with five of the six games going under 5.5 goals. Vasilevskiy is a big reason for that. His expected goals against per game in all situations was 3.05 goals. He has given up more than three goals once in his past 11 outings, and that was in Game 1 against the Rangers following a nine-day layoff. I can see the Avalanche getting to four goals on an empty-netter in some of these games, but I'd fade them on the total, especially on the road.
Chandan: As Joe said earlier, the Avalanche have not faced anyone like Vasilevskiy in the playoffs so far, and for Game 1 of the Final, I'm easily leaning toward the Avalanche team under 3.5. Perhaps Colorado is able to solve Vasilevskiy and the Lightning defense. But I'm going in with the expectation that Game 1 will be lower scoring than a typical Avalanche game, in which Colorado has averaged 4.6 goals during the playoffs -- including 5.5 goals during the Western Conference finals.
Finish this sentence: I think _________ will be the first goal scorer in Game 1.
Wyshynski: Stamkos (+650). He is tied with MacKinnon for having scored the first goal of the game three times in the playoffs, and he led the Lightning in the regular season by doing it five times. I'm not super confident the Lightning are going to win Game 1, but I am bullish on them in the first period following that layoff for the Avalanche.
Chandan: MacKinnon (+600). He leads all forwards in the playoffs with 83 shots, and he has six first-period goals. It's a safe choice, but when MacKinnon gets going with his speed, he could cause trouble in front of the net for Vasilevskiy.