The universe is back in its proper order, which is to say gradually hurtling our planet toward the sun with all the cinerary fun that implies. But until that happy day, we still have the Tampa Bay Lightning getting to the Stanley Cup Final.
The deed isn’t done yet, as Tampa is merely up three games to two after losing the first two to the New York Rangers. The Bolts (and I still say we should make them the ‘Ning and ‘Gers trying to meet the ‘Lanche in the ‘Up ‘Nal) have reinstalled Andrei Vasilevskiy as the best goaltender in the world after a brief but intriguing flirtation with Igor Shesterkin, and the two-time defending badasses-in-general are taking a slow but strangulatory grip on this series.
This is too bad in some ways, as New York’s flash and exuberance would provide a nice facewash to the mighty Coloradii, who are also all that. But in hockey, youth is rewarded only when oldth is goddamned good and ready to let it be rewarded, and it always takes a bit more time than you might think. Nathan MacKinnon seems like a child but has been doing this for nine years now, and Gabriel Landeskog is in his 11th season. The Avs are not old but neither are they young any more; their recent playoff history is paved with disappointment and occasional underachievement, but in Hockeyville, that passes for experience too. They look for the moment like they are at their very apogee, but they are not far away from that faint whiff of liniment and chamomile tea. I’d guess they are where Tampa was in 2019, only Darcy Kuemper isn’t Vasilevskiy. This could be the start of a new era, or it could be a sharp lesson about what it takes to be the king: having to kill the king.
But Tampa has already begun the aging process not only based on birth certificate information but the extra season and a half they have played in the postseason since 2014. They know how to do this almost instinctively now, and that wisdom, which can usually be encapsulated by watching three Ondrej Palat shifts, makes them seem as old and wizened as the 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, who won a Cup with six regulars and both goalies over the age of 36. By that ridiculous definition, no team has ever been old.
The Lightning gave off that we-got-this vibe even in Game 1 of this series, which they lost 6-2. Vasilevskiy, a callow 27, looked comprehensively awful, seemingly defining what has been an aggressively meh postseason for him, but head coach Jon Cooper, who is every real estate broker whose face you have ever seen on a shopping trolley, seemed unworried and unhurried. Even when the Rangers won Game 2, 3-2, Cooper had this beatific smile that reeked of “OK, now you have our attention,” and since Game 1, all the talk about New York’s Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko has faded. In other words, whatever cootie was gnawing at Vasilevskiy’s inner ear has been eradicated, and in front of him the other 17 Bolts seem calm and commanding in that “veteran leadership” claptrap sort of way.
For Ranger fans, who are used to getting their hopes up as a prelude to laying their faces against a skate sharpener as penance for thinking they have good things coming, it will take a massive reversal of form to keep them from golf with a beer stein instead of a neighborhood pool party with the Cup. It’s not that they don’t look ready to win, it’s just that “ready” requires an opponent that is either less ready than you are or doesn’t have a black hole in goal that atomizes any puck shot in his direction. The Lightning are just, well, readier, and if Saturday goes as the series has been trending, the Final will begin next Tuesday between the two readiest and most well-seasoned teams on the menu.
If it helps the Rangers, though, the last time a team won the first two games of a series then lost the next three and still won, it was the Washington Capitals in 2018. The team they beat was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who wasn’t … ready yet. See how this works? You’re not ready until you’re ready, and when you’re ready you’ll know.