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Rick Tocchet: Elite Players Might Not Decide Stanley Cup Final



Stanley Cup

Rick Tocchet picked up three Stanley Cup rings while he was on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ payroll, so he has a pretty good idea of what it takes to win a championship in the NHL.

He’s also a TV analyst, paid to candidly express his opinions. Which he wasn’t shy about doing even before he got into broadcasting.

(Part 2 of 2 of an exclusive interview with Rick Tocchet. Check out part 1: why he thinks the Penguins aren’t done yet.)

Even so, there’s only one prediction he’s prepared to offer about the 2022 Stanley Cup final between Tampa Bay and Colorado, which begins Wednesday in Denver.

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And it’s not about which team is going to cap its season with a civic celebration in a couple of weeks.

Rather, Tocchet is convinced that the series will live up to — and maybe even exceed — the rarefied expectations so many people have for it.

“It’s going to be a great series,” he said. “It’s one that everyone is excited to see.”

There is, as Tocchet noted, no shortage of storylines that will be playing out during this best-of-seven.

The Lightning are trying to become the first club since the NHL’s salary-cap system was introduced in 2005 to win three consecutive Cups — actually something no one has done since the New York Islanders ran off four in a row in 1980-83 — by beating a team that features some of the most dynamic talents in the game, headlined by Cale Makar and Nathan MacKinnon.

“You have a team with a chance to do something that nobody’s done in the cap era and then you have a team that’s been … one of the best teams on paper that can’t break through (previously) that looks like they’re firing on all cylinders now,” Tocchet said.

The Lightning, of course, have their share of top-shelf talent, including guys like Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman and Steven Stamkos.

Tampa Bay also has a goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is widely regarded as the world’s leading practitioner of his craft. He figures to give the Lightning a clear advantage in the goaltending matchup, especially if the Avalanche’s No. 1, Darcy Kuemper, isn’t deemed healthy enough to play and must be replaced by Pavel Francouz.

“(The Lightning’s) goalie is a Mt. Rushmore-type goalie,” Tocchet said. “If Kuemper is healthy, you can close the gap on the goaltending, but if he’s not healthy or they have to go with the other guy, that’s just a huge margin of goaltending difference. Hopefully, Kuemper can be 100 percent, to lessen that gap.”

Tocchet was surrounded by future Hall of Famers like Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Bryan Trottier and Larry Murphy on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 1992 Cup winners, so he has a genuine appreciation for the impact elite players can have.

He also thinks it is possible that the stars on the Cup finalists will, in large part, cancel each other out, so blue-collar forwards like Nick Paul and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of Tampa Bay and Colorado’s J.T. Compher and Andrew Cogliano might be the guys who ultimately determine the winner.

“Kucherov is going to do his thing, and MacKinnon and Makar, but I thought that in the Edmonton series, the third and fourth lines of Colorado were a big factor,” he said. “Obviously, your star players have to play like stars. But once again, the third and fourth lines, I believe that’s what it comes down to.”

Intangibles might well play a part in how the series plays out, too, and both clubs have proven willing to compete and sacrifice to get this far. The Lightning showed its mettle by rallying from a 3-2 deficit in Round 1 against Toronto when it looked as if its season was all but lost.

“I thought Tampa was on the ropes against Toronto,” Tocchet said. “I thought Toronto might have been the better team in the series, but when you have that experience … and the will of Tampa to win is incredible.”

Colorado, meanwhile, has begun to grasp that it takes more than exceptional talent to thrive at this level.

“Colorado, I see as a little bit different than the last couple of years,” he said. “They’re learning to win. MacKinnon takes short shifts. Makar is all-world right now.”

The Avalanche are a popular choice to claim the Cup, but betting against Tampa Bay has been no way to get wealthy for the past few years.

Perhaps the closest thing to a safe wager is that nothing figures to be settled quickly between these clubs.

“I think it’s going to be a long series,” Tocchet said.

Which means it should have plenty of time to live up to the hype.