This one just hits differently, doesn’t it?
With all due respect to recent Stanley Cup final participants, there’s something undeniably extra in the air with the Montreal Canadiens reaching the big dance for the first time in 28 years. Seeing the St. Louis Blues end a 52-year drought in 2019 was magical, as was watching Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals break their deadlock the year before that, but the Habs are hockey’s most storied franchise. It’s like the New York Yankees reaching the World Series. It just feels…bigger.
That mood was palpable Sunday when the Habs, owners of 24 Stanley Cups, and defending champion Lightning participated in Zoom conference calls for Stanley Cup Media Day. We saw the usual hockey questions, sure, covering everything from the Habs’ amazing penalty kill to Brayden Point’s unbelievable goal-scoring run, but we also saw Lightning players such as left winger Alex Killorn and defenseman David Savard asked what it was like to face their hometown team from Montreal in the final. Killorn admitted he was excited to see the Habs make it and that his friends and family were maintaining their poker faces when it came to which team they’d cheer for.
The Montreal factor adds a massive dollop of intrigue to a final that was already full of it based on the players taking part. We have the two best goalies in the world locking horns in Carey Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy; a chance for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos at a re-do on last year’s Cup run, in which he could only play two minutes and 47 seconds; and the end of a long wait for a trip to the final for grizzled Habs captain Shea Weber. And those are just a few of the storylines.
So which team will close the book on 2020-21 hoisting the Cup? The mighty Lightning hope to become just the fourth repeat champion since the 1990s began, joining the 1992 Pittsburgh Penguins, 1998 Detroit Red Wings and 2017 Penguins. The plucky Habs will attempt to become the first Canadian team to lift the chalice since they did so in 1993. Who has the edge? Let’s break down the series in six crucial categories, with insight from the people participating in it.
The Lightning are as deep and talented as any team in the league largely because of their nearly unrivalled scoring depth. It was telling that they “only” ranked ninth in the NHL in average offense during the regular season despite star right winger Nikita Kucherov sitting out all 56 games after hip surgery and center Stamkos missing the final 16 games with a lower-body injury. The more accurate representation of who the Lightning are is the playoff edition, complete with Stamkos and Kucherov parachuting back into the lineup just as Round 1 began. This Tampa team actually averages more goals per game in the post-season (3.22) than the regular season (3.21), an impressive feat given the officials put the whistles away and invite a more grinding game in the playoffs. Kucherov has lapped the field in the post-season scoring race, churning out 27 points in 18 games, while center Point has channelled 1976 Reggie Leach with 14 goals in 18 games, including a nine-game goal streak, and the Lightning are balanced, boasting seven players with at least four goals this post-season.
And yet…are they overrated in terms of their scoring contributions in 5-on-5 play? They’ve been rather ordinary overall at 5-on-5 – even below average at generating shots. Among the 16 teams in the field, the Bolts sit in the bottom half in expected goals per 60 during post-season play. Then again, because of their elite skill, they don’t need as many chances as most teams do. They average more than 11 high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes, second among every team to compete in the 2021 post-season. During the regular season, Tampa sat 22nd in that category. Getting Kucherov and Stamkos back changed the team’s offensive identity.
The Habs, one of the deepest teams in the league at forward, did a great job generating chances by volume in the regular season despite lacking any true superstar scorers. They graded out among the best teams in the league in every shot- and chance-generating metric. In the playoffs, their identity has actually changed to that of a lower-volume counter-attacker, perhaps by necessity because they have been matched up against teams favored to beat them over and over. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Vegas Golden Knights badly out-chanced them, but Price’s otherworldly play in net afforded the Habs the ability to absorb another team’s attack and counter-punch in transition.
The Habs do have the speed to make their counter-attacks count thanks to the likes of Paul Byron, Brendan Gallagher and, most importantly, emerging franchise pillars Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. The latter two have injected a level of danger that the team previously lacked.
“There’s a youthful energy that we bring,” Suzuki said. “Maybe we don’t really know what to expect, but that might be a good thing, too.”
Armed with a deadly release and the speed to find shooting lanes, Caufield sits in the 87th percentile for the playoffs in shots per 60 among 102 forwards with 100 or more minutes played. It’s possible we haven’t seen the best of him yet in these playoffs.
The Habs use a true committee approach to scoring. No player has more than five goals or 14 points so far this post-season. The second line of Tyler Toffoli, Suzuki and Caufield is the most dynamic, but plenty of other Hab forwards have had their moments, from Jesperi Kotkaniemi to Josh Anderson to the veteran agitator Corey Perry.
Still, while the 5-on-5 offense is sneaky-close to even, there’s no denying that Tampa’s group has a higher ceiling. The Habs have no counterparts measuring up to Kucherov, Point and Stamkos, and Tampa’s next wave of forwards, from Ondrej Palat to Anthony Cirelli to Blake Coleman to Yanni Gourde, provides tremendous support.
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last season as a complete team that could fill the net but also shut down opponents, and most of the components that made them so complete remain. In Point and Anthony Cirelli, the Lightning have two highly impactful two-way centers capable of shadowing other teams’ top forwards. While Victor Hedman had a down year (despite finishing as a Norris Trophy finalist), he’s still a horse you want to trust for 30 minutes a night during the final and seems to have gotten better as the playoffs progress, while Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak do heavy lifting as a shutdown tandem, too.
As a whole, though, this Tampa team isn’t as airtight defensively as last year’s. The Bolts have been outshot and outchanced in these playoffs, albeit they’ve done a respectable job limiting chance quality. On the whole, this year’s team relies on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy far more than it did last season.
The Habs, on the other hand, are a defense-first group who did an excellent job all season protecting Price. Only three teams allowed fewer shots on goal per 60 at 5-on-5. It’s been a slightly different story in the post-season with the Habs’ facing stiffer competition. They’ve allowed an additional four shots per 60 minutes. But they’ve kept high-danger chances relatively low, and the shutdown work from center Phillip Danault and his line has been excellent as always. They contained Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner in Round 1 and utterly erased Mark Stone in Round 3. In 5-on-5 play, opponents have managed just five goals this post-season in 261 minutes with Danault on the ice.
“They’ve done a great job shutting down those lines, but that’s where you have to rely on your depth,” Killorn said. “You can’t rely on one line, and that’s why we as a team have been successful. We have four lines that can go, four lines that can score. In a playoff series, it’s inevitable that the opposing team’s going to have a great game or couple games where maybe they shut down our top line, but that’s where you have to rely on the depth, and hopefully we can do that.”
Montreal’s top four on defense – Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry – have proven sturdy and defended the rush well. That particular skill will be particularly important against the talented Lightning.
Price versus Vasilevskiy shapes up as an all-time great netminding duel, perhaps the best on paper for a Cup final since Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur in 2001. Vasilevskiy entered the post-season as the consensus best goaltender in the world, but Price has rejoined that discussion and justified the fact that people inside the sport have consistently named him as the best in the game even as his 2014-15 Vezina Trophy season shrinks to a speck in the rearview mirror.
Unlike previous seasons in which Vasilevskiy’s underlying numbers didn’t support his elite surface numbers, he’s been truly elite in 2020-21. Among 43 goalies with at least 1,000 minutes played at 5-on-5, he faced the 10th-most high danger chances per 60 yet finished with the second-best high-danger save percentage in the league. Even with the most challenging workload of his career, he was all-world. In the post-season, he’s again been particularly great against the highest-quality chances, posting an incredible .896 high-danger SP. He’s maintaining the standard he set during the regular season and has stepped up as the stakes elevated. While coach Jon Cooper is adamant that his team can’t sit back and rely on its goaltender too much, as a balanced roster is the hallmark of Tampa’s success, he’s certainly thrilled to have a stopper as good as ‘Vasy.’
“We’ve watched him grow into the winner he is, the competitor he is, and you don’t get to this level unless you’ve got great goaltending,” Cooper said. “Hence why both goalies' statistics are the same, why both teams are still playing, in large part because the goalies have been great.”
Price, on the other hand? For a second consecutive year, he struggled in the regular season. In that 43-goalie sample, he graded out as the 27th-best netminder in the league in terms of goals saved above average per 60 minutes despite the third lowest expected goals against per 60. Perhaps Price simply isn’t at his best with a low-volume, low-difficulty workload? In the post-season with tougher opponents, he’s totally transformed. He’s facing more than 30 shots per 60 minutes, and his expected goals against mark has jumped almost half a goal, yet he’s been dominant under the increased pressure, posting a spectacular .934 SP. Not only does his almost-robotic calm get into opponents’ heads, but it can also get into his teammates’ heads – in a good way. Knowing Price is back there increases the D-corps’ confidence.
“That goes a long way,” Petry said. “Whether you’re up in a game, down in a game, he’s always calm and collected, and his movements seem effortless. He doesn’t get rattled in the net. His calming presence sends a message to the whole team…knowing you have a guy like that behind you is something special.”
It’s impossible to award an edge in net here. Price and Vasilevskiy are the only two winners of the “best goalie” vote since the NHL Players’ Association began publishing its player polls in 2017-18.
Could special teams decide the series? It’s Tampa’s powerhouse power play against Montreal’s smothering penalty kill. The Bolts are so dominant with the man advantage that they almost rely on power plays too much. They’re converting at a cartoonish 37.7 percent this post-season. But will they meet their match in the Habs? Their penalty kill sits at an astonishing 93.5 percent for the playoffs, setting an NHL playoff record going 13 straight games without allowing a goal. It hurts to have right winger Joel Armia out for the start of the series in COVID-19 protocol, but the Habs have the depth to remain a lockdown P.K. unit without him. Not only is it extremely tough to score against the likes of Weber, Edmundson, Danault and Artturi Lehkonen, but the Habs have been among the most disciplined teams in the playoffs, averaging the 14th-most PIM per game among the 16 participants.
“We can’t take penalties unless we’re nullifying a scoring chance or trying to play extra aggressive and get a hard hit that just happens to be a penalty – we’ll take those, but the stick penalties laterally in the neutral zone and offensive zone we can’t take,” said Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson, filling in as the head coach while Dominique Ducharme remains in COVID-19 protocol. “So that’ll be the first concern for the whole team. Penalty killing, the guys are playing great, they’re playing confident, they’re playing aggressive, and that’s what we have to do. For Tampa, they have elite talent, and you can’t just take one player away, because then they’ll pick you apart somewhere else. So we have to be alert in all situations.”
The Lightning, on the other hand, are consistently among the least disciplined teams in the league. They require an elite penalty kill to bail them out. It worked in the 2020 post-season with key forward additions Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow doing tremendous work shorthanded, and the Bolts are still strong at 83 percent for the 2021 playoffs.
The Habs power play struggled early on in this post-season but has at least looked adequate since, boosted by bringing Caufield into the fray. Two of his four goals have come on the power play.
It’s difficult to give an edge here to one team or the other since the Bolts’ power play and Habs penalty kill have been overwhelmingly great and each team has held its own on the other side of special teams, too.
Richardson has done an admirable job filing in while Ducharme works through his 14-day quarantine. Richardson’s calming energy jives with this underdog group.
Still, the coaching edge clearly goes to Tampa’s Cooper, who took this team to the final in 2015, won it all in 2020 and is in line to be named coach of Canada’s 2022 Olympic team should NHL players get to go. His larger-than-life personality makes no moment too big for him and equips him perfectly to manage a team loaded with stars.
Think with your head, and it probably tells you the Lightning win this series. They’re the most balanced and talented team in the NHL. They were last year, too. But if you think with your heart? The Habs have some special juju around them, having posted the league’s 18th-best record, firing coach Claude Julien during the season and entering each round as a clear underdog. They don’t necessarily see themselves as underdogs, but they can still weaponize an “us against the world” mentality.
“We believe that we aren’t the underdog, that we’re very confident in ourselves and what we’ve accomplished,” Richardson said. “But in the same respect, (the underdog label is) fine. We’ve tuned out the outside of the dressing room and let people say what they want to say. We don’t even have to say it to the players. We hear them talking about it. That’s a great attitude to have. We don’t really use it as a motivation to prove people wrong, but you can have a little bit of ignorance in you that you want to show people that we belong more than that they’re wrong.”
The Bolts, on the other hand, know what it’s like to be champs but want to experience it properly this time. Winning in the COVID-19 bubble last year robbed them of the chance to share the experience with their loved ones in the traditional way. Now Amalie Arena is packed with at least 14,800 people and offers Tampa the chance to experience all the spoils of winning. That’s a powerful motivator.
The Lightning have the advantage of recent championship experience, but Montreal has plenty of winners in its lineup too. Edmundson, Toffoli, Perry, Eric Staal, Jake Allen and Michael Frolik have rings.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ CONSENSUS PREDICTION: Lightning in six games.