Down to the final two teams standing in the 2021 NHL Playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens are set to battle with the Tampa Bay Lightning to decide who will capture the Stanley Cup.
Continuing their magical playoff run, the Canadiens dispatched the Vegas Golden Knights in six games with a 3-2 overtime victory in the series’ closeout game. Returning to the cup final for the first time since the 1993 season, forward Artturi Lehkonen scored just 1:39 into overtime to help the team punch their ticket. While looking to repeat as champions, the Lightning knocked off the pesky New York Islanders with a narrow 1-0 victory in game seven. Earning his fourth shutout in a row in a closeout game, goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy made 18 stops to help Jon Cooper’s group move on.
Related: NHL season recaps by team can be found here.
Carey Price has remained the backbone for the Canadiens in goal and been brilliant throughout his 17 starts in the playoffs. Tied for the playoff lead with 12 wins, the former Hart Trophy winner has recorded a .934 save percentage and a 2.02 goals-against average. Continuing to shine bright on the game’s biggest stages, the 33-year-old has helped instill confidence in the group in front of him with his determination and cool, calm and collected demeanor.
Clutch in big games like his counterpart in this series, Vasilevskiy has continued to shine for Tampa Bay in big moments. Facing over 550 shots in the playoffs, the former first-round pick has amassed a .936 save percentage and a 1.99 GAA with an astounding four shutouts. Look for Price to have a slight edge in this one for his years of experience in big games. However, expect this series to be a treat with two of the best in the world set to do battle.
Montreal’s top-four defenseman have been monsters for Dominique Ducharme’s group. They have logged significant minutes through three series. Averaging over 25 minutes per night, the team leans on the top pairing of captain Shea Weber and former fourth-round pick Ben Chiarot. Combining for over 100 hits and 70 blocked shots, the duo helped stifle the star players on the Winnipeg Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs before holding the misfit line of the Golden Knights to just one goal. Furthermore, both Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson have provided the Canadiens with a formidable second pairing. The group will also lean on Jonathon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson to round out the defensive core. They have done a steady job at making opposing players earn every inch of ice.
Full of firepower on the back end, Tampa Bay is led by reigning Vezina Trophy winner Victor Hedman. He was outstanding for the team once again, leading all defenseman with 16 points in 18 games. Behind their star on the blue line, the team also has another standout tandem in former New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak. Formidable all playoffs long, both players have excelled in their own zone, allowing them both to rank inside the top ten in plus/minus. Employing one of the best third pairings league-wide, the team closes out their group with former Montreal draft pick Mikhail Sergachev and trade deadline acquisition David Savard. The defense for the Canadiens has remained one of the postseason stories to date. Nonetheless, look for the Lightning to hold the advantage with their substantial depth from top to bottom.
Montreal is solid on the power play, having the fourth-highest conversion rate of teams that advanced to the second round. Scoring on nine of their opportunities with the extra man, the group employs a four-forward setup. Veteran Corey Perry joins center Nick Suzuki and winger Tyler Toffoli upfront with rookie Cole Caufield and Gustafsson on the back end. Where the team has truly made their mark is when they are down a man. Killing penalties at a historic rate, Montreal has converted an outstanding 93.5 percent of its opportunities. The team has killed off 30-straight chances when shorthanded, while scoring four goals of their own.
Clicking at an astounding 37.7 percent success rate on the power play, Tampa Bay has scored 20 goals with the man advantage. That lines up right where they left off from the regular season, when the group ranked ninth in the NHL in success rate. Structured similarly to their opponents, the team has Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point upfront with captain Steven Stamkos and Hedman on defense.
Finding success when down a man, the team has killed off penalties at a respective 83 percent clip. Ranking second behind Montreal, the Lightning have scored two shorthanded goals, with Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman finding the back of the net. A significant factor in this series, look for this one to come down to Montreal’s ability to slow down the high-powered Tampa Bay power play. Historically successful when down a man, the slight advantage goes to Ducharme’s group on special teams.
Montreal has found success from different parties up and down their lineup throughout their magical run to the final. 14 different players have scored a goal. Forwards Tyler Toffoli, Joel Armia, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Suzuki have tied for the team lead with five goals a piece. Furthermore, after sitting out the Canadiens’ first two games against the Maple Leafs, Caufield has provided the group with a much-needed boost on the wing. Dynamic with the puck on his stick, the Hobey Baker award winner has recorded nine points in 15 games, with three of them coming via the man advantage.
Seeing their star players help lead the way once again, Tampa Bay has witnessed some spectacular performances upfront. On an inside track to capture the Conn Smythe trophy, Kucherov leads the team with five goals and 22 assists. Point has looked incredible all playoffs long, with a league-leading 14 goals. Averaging over three goals per game, the Lightning have also seen solid individual performances from Stamkos and Killorn, who remain tied with 17 points each.
Like their counterparts, the group has also received an ample amount of depth scoring, as five more forwards have recorded at least five points or more. Despite Montreal’s production from all areas of the lineup, the edge goes to Tampa on offense with stars all over their top six.
Receiving a boost upfront from their younger draft picks, the Canadiens have relied on both Caufield and Suzuki to log substantial minutes throughout the playoffs. Raising his game in the playoffs, Montreal has continued to get production from Kotkaniemi. Recently tying Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby for most playoff goals under 21, the Finnish forward has racked up seven points in 16 games through his team’s run.
Beginning to appear as a modern-day dynasty to many fans, the Lightning possess both the versatility and star power to win in any fashion. Benefitting from the return of Kucherov, the team has also enjoyed the addition of Stamkos to help them during their cup defense. While missing most of the 2020 playoffs with a core injury, the former number one overall pick is second on the team with seven goals in 17 games. Despite the strong play the Canadiens have gotten from their young talent; the edge remains with the game-breaking talent present on Tamps Bay.
Due to the league’s COVID-19 protocols, Montreal will be without their head coach until at least game three of the series. Turning the bench over to assistant coach Luke Richardson, assistant coaches Alexander Burrows and Sean Burke will join the 52-year-old behind the bench. Beginning his coaching career with the Ottawa Senators, the 21 year NHL veteran also served as an assistant coach for the New York Islanders. Until Ducharme can return, look for the Canadiens to keep the same game plan intact of trying to clog the neutral zone with tight-checking to not allow the star forwards of Tampa Bay to get going with speed.
The longest-tenured head coach currently in the NHL, Cooper has remained one of the best in the business. He already has a Stanley Cup under his belt via their victory a year ago. The 53-year-old previously served as both an assistant and head coach for Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey and the IIHF World Championship. Praised by his players for choosing culture over strategy, the Prince George native can connect with all of the team members while still making adjustments on the fly. As a result, while Ducharme will return in this series after guiding Montreal all year long, look for the Lightning to hold an advantage in the coaching department.
Tampa Bay will look to become the first back-to-back Stanley Cup champions since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017. They will have their hands full with Montreal; look for the Canadiens to give the Lightning all they can handle. Since catching fire when they trailed the Maple Leafs 3-1 in the opening-round series, the team has been able to make life hell for opposing star players. Along with this, Price has remained spectacular in big moments with critical saves to keep them in the game.
The star players of the Lightning continue to rack up points and score key goals in big moments. Look for them to be too much for their opponent to handle. With Vasilevskiy shining bright with one of the best groups in the league in front of him, look for his team to capture their second straight championship in a hard-fought seven-game series.
Series Prediction: Tampa Bay 4-3
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