We’ve finally made it to the Stanley Cup Final, and it’s time for Lightning vs Canadiens hockey! Though a bit delayed from the usual time of year, playoff hockey will always be better late than never. With seven games remaining before a chaotic offseason (Seattle expansion draft, NHL entry draft, free agency with a flat salary cap, shortened offseason to start next year on time, etc.), the important thing at this point is to sit back and enjoy the beautiful game in its ultimate form.
In this Stanley Cup preview, I’ll break down all you need to know before the Lightning and Canadiens take the ice, along with a winning pick for who will be crowned the Stanley Cup Champions.
Stanley Cup Preview: How We Got Here
The playoff path has been crazy for both clubs. The Lightning are the defending champions but finished third in the Central Division Standings. Nikita Kucherov, the leading scorer from the 2020 playoffs, missed the entire regular season after undergoing hip surgery, but now that he’s back, he’s once again on top of the league in playoff points.
Tampa Bay eliminated the Florida Panthers in six games, the Carolina Hurricanes in five, then held off a tenacious New York Islanders team in seven games.
Meanwhile, Montreal was the last team to clinch a playoff spot, barely qualifying for postseason play and having a playoff worst -9 regular season goal differential. The Canadiens were on the brink of elimination, trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in their Opening Round series.
However, the Habs flipped the switch to rally and win the series, including winning twice in Toronto while facing elimination. Montreal kept it rolling in the second round with a sweep of the Winnipeg Jets in the second round and upset the Vegas Golden Knights in the semifinal round four games to two.
Stay tuned to KnupSports.com for the latest NHL news throughout the Stanley Cup and into the offseason.
Stanley Cup Preview: Series Schedule
GAME ONE: Monday, June 28, 8:00 P.M. @ Tampa Bay
GAME TWO: Wednesday, June 30, 8:00 P.M. @ Tampa Bay
GAME THREE: Friday, July 2, 8:00 P.M. @ Montreal
GAME FOUR: Monday, July 5, 8:00 P.M. @ Montreal
GAME FIVE*: Wednesday, July 7, 8:00 P.M. @ Tampa Bay
GAME SIX*: Friday, July 9, 8:00 P.M. @ Montreal
GAME SEVEN*: Sunday, July 11, 7:00 P.M. @ Tampa Bay
* = if needed, all times Eastern
Stanley Cup Preview: Matchup History
Because of the COVID-19 necessitated division realignment and division-only regular season schedule, the Lightning and Canadiens did not get to play during the regular season. Montreal holds the all-time advantage in the head-to-head matchup with a record of 48 wins, 43 losses, six ties and eight overtime losses.
Lightning vs Canadiens Stanley Cup History
The Lightning are the defending champions and have won two Stanley Cups in three appearances. Their other win came in 2004, and they lost in 2015. Since entering the league in the 1992-93 season, Tampa Bay has tied for the third-most Stanley Cup appearances.
The Canadiens have won a record 23 Stanley Cups in 32 appearances, but they have not won a Cup since 1993. They also have not advanced to a Cup Final since then and have appeared in three finals since 1980.
Stanley Cup Preview: Goaltenders
Andrei Vasilevskiy: 12-3-3, .936 save percentage (first in playoffs), 1.99 GAA (second in playoffs), four shutouts, 13.2 GSAx in all situations, .890 high-danger save percentage in all situations (regular season: 31-10-1, 2.21 GAA, .925 save percentage, five shutouts)
Curtis McElhinney: No Playoff Stats, (regular season: 4-6-2, 3.09 GAA, .875 save percentage, one shutout)
Carey Price: 12-4-1, .934 save percentage (second in playoffs), 2.02 GAA (third in playoffs), one shutout, 8.53 GSAx in all situations, .875 high-danger save percentage in all situations (regular season: 12-7-5, 2.64 GAA, .901 save percentage, one shutout)
Jake Allen: No Playoff Stats, (regular season: 11-12-5, 2.68 GAA, .907 save percentage)
Stanley Cup Preview: Injury Report
No names on the injury report.
Joel Armia – COVID-19 Protocol, expected return: TBD
Jonathan Drouin – Personal, expected return: September 2021
Jake Evans – Concussion, expected return: Game One (cleared for contact in practice before Game Six)
Ryan Poehling – Wrist, expected return: September 2021
Tomas Tatar – Undisclosed, expected return: TBD (may be healthy-scratched from lineup)
Stanley Cup Preview: Special Teams
Power Play: 37.7% (20/53), second in playoffs (regular season: 22.2%, ninth in NHL)
Penalty Kill: 83.0% (44/53), fourth in playoffs (regular season: 84.2%, fourth in NHL)
Power Play: 20.9% (9/43), seventh in playoffs (regular season: 19.2%, 17th in NHL)
Penalty Kill: 93.5% (43/46), best in playoffs (regular season: 78.5%, 23rd in NHL)
Lightning vs Canadiens Storylines
The Canadiens’ defense has been incredible throughout the playoffs, as has goaltender Carey Price. Montreal is 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring at least two goals (they are 1-5 in all other situations). When Price is on his game, he’s among the best goaltenders on the planet.
However, Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy has been incredible as well. Vasilevskiy has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy each of the past four seasons, winning the trophy in 2019. He’s recorded four shutouts in this postseason and has set an NHL record by posting shutouts in four consecutive series-clinching games.
Price vs Vasilevskiy is the single biggest matchup in this series.
Montreal’s young guns have been a key piece of this run as well, as players age 21 or younger have scored 14 goals during this run. The rest of the playoff teams have combined for five goals among such skaters.
Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki have been dynamic, and playing on a line with leading regular season scorer Tyler Toffoli, Montreal has a deadly line that can go toe-to-toe with nearly any line in the league. Caufield scored four goals in the semifinal round and had points in five of six semifinal games. Suzuki has 20 points in 27 career playoff games, including five goals and eight assists in these playoffs.
Tampa Bay’s offense has come from the usual suspects. While Kucherov leads all playoff skaters in points (five goals, 22 assists), Brayden Point nearly tied an NHL record with a nine-game playoff goal scoring streak (the record was 10). Point leads the league with 14 goals this postseason, seven of which came on the power play. Three of Point’s goals are game-winners, and 11 of captain Steven Stamkos’ 17 points have come on the power play.
However, that doesn’t discount the rest of the Lightning’s dangerous scoring abilities. Tampa Bay has eight skaters who have scored at least one game-winning goal during the playoffs; amazingly, those goals have come from depth forwards like Anthony Cirelli, Patrick Maroon, and Barclay Goodrow, along with defenseman Jan Rutta.
Defensively, Montreal’s penalty kill has been masterful, killing 30 straight penalties entering this series. The Canadiens have also scored more shorthanded goals (four) than they’ve allowed power play goals (three). Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot have excelled at shutting down opponents, and Phillip Danault has been arguably the best defensive forward in the playoffs.
The Canadiens’ PK unit will have their hands full with a dominant Lightning power play. Tampa Bay has scored 20 times with the man advantage, and each of those 20 goals has come from the top power play unit (Alex Killorn, Point, Kucherov, Stamkos, Victor Hedman)
Tampa Bay’s blue line is always solid, especially when they can roll Hedman’s pairing into the Ryan McDonagh pairing. Trade deadline pickup David Savard has been a solid depth acquisition, and younger blueliners Mikhail Sergachev (23) and Erik Cernak (24) have stepped up in big moments.
There are a surprising amount of parallels between the 1993 Canadiens team and the current iteration. Both teams rallied from a two-game deficit to eliminate a rival (the 1993 team eliminated the Quebec Nordiques, 2021 eliminated Montreal). They also swept their second round opponent (the Buffalo Sabres in 1993 and the Winnipeg Jets in 2021). Furthermore, both clubs had a 2-1 overtime game in Game Three of the semifinal round and clinched their spot in the final with a win at home.
Every time the Canadiens and Maple Leafs have met in the playoffs, the winner of that series has gone on to win the Cup.
If Tampa Bay wins the series, they would become the second team in the Salary Cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups. The first team to do so was the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Stanley Cup Preview: On to the Pick
Montreal has ruined every single one of my Stanley Cup previews so far. I’ve picked against them every round, and they’ve continued to make me, and many more prominent sportswriters, look foolish for doing so.
What the Canadiens have done defies logic or reason. There’s no explanation for why Carey Price has so dramatically improved on his regular season numbers. The logic doesn’t track for a team with a -9 regular season goal differential to be 11-0 when scoring at least two goals. They win less than half of their faceoffs, they don’t generate a high volume of shots per game, and they don’t have a true game-breaking superstar, but they keep finding ways to win.
Maybe it’s the departure from Claude Julien’s systems and having everyone bought in to what interim coach Dominique Ducharme is doing (Ducharme will return from COVID-19 related absence for Game Three). Maybe it’s bringing each other pizza in the postgame press conference. But there’s something different about this Canadiens bunch that makes them likeable, entertaining, and a threat to anyone they play.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 25, 2021
By nearly every metric, Tampa Bay is the superior club. They score more goals than the Canadiens and allow fewer. They’ve been one of the NHL’s top clubs every year since 2015, constantly finishing at the top of the table in points in the standings and goals on the board, though it has only translated to one Cup win.
For me, the tipping point in picking a winner is the opponents each team beat to get to the Cup Final. As a whole, Tampa Bay faced better teams throughout the playoffs, and I think that experience will work in their favor.
I’m picking Tampa Bay to win the series, but the Canadiens have made me feel more uncomfortable in that pick than in any Stanley Cup prediction I’ve ever made. This year’s Cup final has more fun energy around it than any matchup in years (and that’s not to discredit the buzz around the Washington Capitals’ run in 2018).
Still, with at most a total of seven more games before the season is over, make sure to enjoy every minute of what will be an exciting series from the opening puck drop to the handshake line.
Stanley Cup Prediction: Tampa Bay Lightning in Six Games.