About nine months ago, the NHL handed out the Stanley Cup to the 2020 champion. Now, it’s time to hand it out again — although this time, it may not go far.
The 2021 Stanley Cup Final will feature the defending champion Lightning against the most storied franchise in NHL history, the Canadiens. One team was expected to be here and one team, well, was not. But that doesn’t matter now as the NHL playoffs are down to the final two.
Montreal was down 3-1 to the Maple Leafs in the first round but turned things around and beat them in seven games. Then it swept the Jets and knocked out the Golden Knights. The defending champs kicked off their 2021 run with 4-2 series win in the Battle of Florida vs. the Panthers before a five-game win over the Central Division’s top team, the Hurricanes, and a seven-game triumph in the semifinals over the Islanders.
Now these Atlantic Division squads (in normal times) will hit the ice and battle it out for sports’ biggest and best prize. Can the Lightning win it in back-to-back years? Or will the Canadiens — the last Canadian team to win the Cup (1993) and the first Canadian team in the ultimate round since the 2011 Canucks — be victorious?
Sporting News breaks it all down.
Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens: Schedule, odds, breakdown, prediction
Stanley Cup Final schedule
|Date||Matchup||Time (TV channel)/Results|
|Mon., June 28||at Tampa Bay||8 p.m. (NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Wed., June 30||at Tampa Bay||8 p.m. (NBCSN, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Fri., July 2||at Montreal||8 p.m. (NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|Mon., July 5||at Montreal||8 p.m. (NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|*Wed., July 7||at Tampa Bay||8 p.m. (NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|*Fri., July 9||at Montreal||8 p.m. (NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
|*Sat., July 11||at Tampa Bay||7 p.m. (NBC, SN, CBC, TVA Sports)|
(* If necessary)
In the U.S., every game of the Lightning-Canadiens series can also be streamed on fuboTV, which offers a 7-day free trial.
The teams did not play against each other in 2021 because of COVID-19 restrictions. Here’s a quick look at stats accumulated through the first three rounds of the playoffs (per NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick):
|48.26||CF% at 5v5||47.83|
|32.42||xGF at 5v5||32.47|
|33.3||xGA at 5v5||33.04|
|67.65||HDGF% at 5v5||60.0|
These teams stack up pretty evenly at 5v5 when you look at Natural Stat Tricks’ analytics, such as shot attempts (Lightning 750; Canadiens 748), expected Goals For percentage (Lightning 49.33; Canadiens 49.57), High-Danger Save Percentage (Lightning .896; Canadiens .878) and save percentage (Lightning .939; Canadiens .934).
Tampa Bay enters the final with second-best goals-for-per-game average in the postseason (3.22) and the most goals for (58). They also have the playoff points leader in Nikita Kucherov (27 points) and the goal leader in Brayden Point (14). Kucherov, who didn’t play the entire regular season as he recovered from hip surgery, also missed the majority of Game 6 of the semifinals following a cross-check by the Islanders’ Scott Mayfield. He played in Game 7 but only skated 16 minutes, 29 seconds. Point, a Calgary, Alta., native, has scored in all but four games in the first three rounds and had his streak of nine straight games with a goal broken in Game 7 against the Islanders.
Aside from Kucherov and Point, the team has a balanced offensive group that includes captain Steven Stamkos (17 points), Alex Killorn (17), defenseman Victor Hedman (16) and Anthony Cirelli — and those are just the players with double-digit points. Bench boss Jon Cooper runs all four lines and the blue-liners chip in, too. Only one player who has played at least a game doesn’t have a point, and that’s Mathieu Joseph, who played the first two games against the Panthers and hasn’t slotted in since. There are questions about the health of Stamkos and Kucherov moving forward, though.
The Canadiens don’t have the big guns like the Bolts do, but they certainly have players who can bury the biscuit. Tyler Toffoli leads the team in points (14) and is tied for the team lead in goals (five) but hasn’t scored a goal in four straight game. The team’s young studs have led the charge recently. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki also have five goals apiece (Joel Armia has five, but he’s old at 28). Cole Caufield has four and is on a two-game goal-scoring streak.
The Lightning have a veteran crew on the blue line. In addition to 2021 Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman, there’s Mikhail Sergachev, David Savard, Jan Rutta, Erik Cernak and Ryan McDonagh. All but Savard were on the 2020 Cup team, so this group knows what it takes to win it all. Montreal also has a solid defense corps, led by Shea Weber (first career final in his 16th season), Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and 2019 Cup winner Joel Edmundson.
Montreal does have the slight edge when it comes defensive forwards. Phillip Danault shut down Mitch Marner and Auston Matthew, then Blake Wheeler, and then Mark Stone, whom he skunked.
But when it comes to defense in this series, all eyes will be on the guys between the pipes: Andrei Vasilevksiy and Carey Price. These Hall of Fame-caliber netminders will go save-for-save. It’ll come down to who makes that one extra save.
Vasilevskiy is up again for the Vezina, and for good reason. He led the league with 31 wins — the Lightning won 36 total — and had a shiny .925 save percentage. That was in the regular season; as the importance of each game has risen, so has his level of play. In the playoffs, he’s boasting a .936 save percentage, just .002 ahead of Price. The biggest edge the Russian has is his four shutouts — three coming in series clinchers. In 18 starts, he has elevated his Goals Saved Above Average at 5v5 from 3.57 entering the semis to 4.85 after; however, his High-Danger Save percentage dropped from .921 to .896 (per Natural Stat Trick).
According to Natural Stat Trick, Price has faced the most shots at 5v5 (441) but has an impressive .934 save percentage (Vasilevskiy is at .939 at 5v5). His save percentage jumps to .952 when short-handed. The Canadian is probably much fresher than his counterpart as he only started 25 games (12-7-5, .901 save percentage) after missing time because of injury.
This will be an all-out battle. Tampa Bay’s power play is 37.7 percent effective and Montreal’s penalty kill is an eye-opening 93.5 percent effective in the playoffs. What’s even more jaw-dropping is that they have more short-handed goals (four) than power-play goals against (three). The Lightning have 20 power-play goals out of 58 total goals; both lead the NHL.
Key players to watch
Pat Maroon (TBL): Will Maroon score big goals? Probably not. But what he brings is the old-school, under-your-skin act that takes the best of the competition off their game. He was constantly seen chirping the Islanders and was always in the mix at the whistle. Per Natural Stat Trick, he has drawn six penalties, including three on the penalty kill. You have to know Maroon will be hungry for a title — not because he hasn’t won but because it’ll be his third straight.
Cole Caufield (MTL): Speaking of energy, Caufield has injected a ton of it into the Canadiens’ lineup. He was a healthy scratch to start the postseason, but since being inserted into the lineup in Game 3 he has played a key role. He has set up multiple big goals (Suzuki’s overtime goal in Game 5 against the Leafs and Toffoli’s series-ender against the Jets) and the pure goal scorer has also been burying them as of late. The 2021 world junior gold medalist and Hobey Baker winner entered the semis without a goal but now has four, and one each in the last two games.
Lightning vs. Canadiens playoff history
|2015||TBL def. MTL in second round in six games|
|2014||MTL def. TBL in first round in four games|
|2004||TBL def. MTL in conference semifinals in four games|
Last five playoff appearances
Tampa Bay Lightning
|2020||Won Stanley Cup|
|2019||Lost in first round to CBJ in four games|
|2018||Lost in conference finals to WSH in seven games|
|2016||Lost in conference finals to PIT in seven games|
|2015||Lost in Stanley Cup Final to CHI in six games|
|2020||Lost in first round to PHI in six games|
|2017||Lost in first round to NYR in six games|
|2015||Lost in second round to TBL in six games|
|2014||Lost in conference finals to NYR in six games|
|2013||Lost in conference quarterfinals to OTT in five games|
Lightning vs. Canadiens prediction
It’s hard not to think the Canadiens will pull this one out — and they just may if Carey Price does Carey Price things, the kids use their speed and skill, Phillip Danault does his shutdown thing, veterans Eric Staal (2006 Stanley Cup), Corey Perry (2007), Toffoli (2014), Edmundson (2019) and Weber lead and the team ignores the pressure of an entire country on its shoulders. But the Lightning are, soup to nuts, the more stacked team. This club has been to the promised land. It knows what it takes and, when all is said and done, should go back-to-back.
Prediction: Lightning in 6