Wednesday, June 22, 2022

All 14 series that got us to this Stanley Cup final, ranked

We’re three games into the Stanley Cup final, one that seemed on paper to be in the running for the best matchup of the cap era and maybe beyond. On one side, the two-time defending champs going for the NHL’s first threepeat in almost four decades. On the other, the league’s most talented team looking to finally slay the dragon and bring their best game when it matters most.

And through the first three games it’s been… fine.

Maybe better than that. Game 1 was a borderline classic. But Game 2 was a blowout of historic proportions, and Game 3 wasn’t much better. The series is 2-1 and feels like it still has plenty of runway left, but neutral fans have to be getting at least a little worried that this epic final could end up being a dud.

You know what, I don’t really want to think about it. So instead of looking ahead, let’s look back at the 14 series it took to get us here with a worst-to-best ranking. This will tougher than most years, because I’m on record as saying this year’s playoffs have been unusually good. There are going to be some decent series that don’t even make the top 10, which is kind of cool.

Let’s count them down from 14 to 1, then root for the Avalanche and Lightning to deliver four more classics so that this final can take a run at top spot.

14. Lightning over Panthers in four (round 2)

This was supposed to be the exciting sequel to last year’s well-received debut, only with bigger stakes and (maybe) a new ending. Instead, it was a bust. The second Battle of Florida featured a Panthers team that had just won the Presidents’ Trophy and seemed ready to finally beat the Lightning, or at least put up more of a fight than they had in 2021. Nope. Tampa rolled in four straight, and the high-powered Panthers offense managed just three goals.

You could argue that this series at least had its moment, including Ross Colton’s buzzer beater in Game 2. But given the expectations, no series was as disappointing. It wasn’t even all that close.

13. Avalanche over Predators in four(round 1)

I’m guessing this would be a lot of fans picks for last place, since the outcome was never in doubt once Juuse Saros went down and we all would have forgiven the Predators if they’d just tapped out after three games. But given the rock-bottom expectations, the Preds at least put up a bit of a fight, taking one game to overtime and holding a third-period lead in Game 4.

More importantly, it was at least kind of cool to see the Avs flex their muscles early on. It was like the opening scene of a big-budget TV show, where the main character gets to just destroy a few low-level opponents to make sure we understand what they can do. Sure, you figure there’s tougher challenges to come, but in the meantime it’s still fun to watch the hero straight-up wreck some dudes.

12. Blues over the Wild in six (round 1)

The great irony of the first round was that five of the eight series went seven games, but not the one that everyone assumed would go the distance. That would be the Wild and Blues, two equally matched teams that had spent most of the second half of the season battling for second in the Central and home ice in their inevitable first-round showdown. The matchup had just about everything you could want – lots of talent, some bad blood, and two legitimate Cup contenders with a sense of urgency to win now.

And then we got… well, not quite a dud, but nothing all that memorable. No overtime, no seventh game showdown, and all six games were decided by three goals or more. What was signature game or moment from the series? Maybe Vladimir Tarasenko’s hat trick in Game 5, or Kirill Kaprizov’s in Game 2? Sure, those were good games from star players, although both needed an empty-netter for the third goal. This series was fine. We just wanted more than that.

11. Panthers over Capitals in six (round 1)

Probably the last interesting series on paper heading into round one, this one certainly got our attention early on, with the Capitals winning two of the first three. The Panthers levelled up after that, winning three straight to slam the door on any upset talk, but they had to battle to get there.

I’ll be honest, looking back on this series reminded me that it was at least a little bit better than I remembered, with Games 4 and 6 both going to overtime after tying goals late in regulation. Maybe this should have felt like a better David vs. Goliath story than it was. But a relatively recent Cup winner like Washington doesn’t really resonate as an underdog, and in hindsight we know that the outcome here didn’t matter all that much since the Panthers wouldn’t win another game.

Sorry, Florida, no top ten appearance for you. I pumped your tires before the playoffs started, maybe too much, but no team was a bigger letdown once the action started.

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