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(4) MONTREAL CANADIENS VERSUS (3) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
Tampa Bay is back in the Stanley Cup Final for a second straight year after winning the NHL’s ultimate prize in 2020. The Lightning defeated the Florida Panthers in six games during the first round and eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes in five games during the second round. Tampa Bay defeated the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Semifinals in a seven-game series. The Montreal Canadiens made their way to the Stanley Cup Final with a first-round win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games followed by a four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets in the second round. Montreal defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in six games during the Stanley Cup Semifinals.
The Lightning were largely considered to be a favorite to return to defend their title, but the Canadiens became a surprising Cinderella story in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Montreal has gone on an 11-2 run since battling back from the brink of elimination in the opening round. Tampa Bay had some injury concerns before and during the postseason and faced difficult teams to get back to the Stanley Cup Final. The Canadiens emerged victorious despite being underestimated in each series thanks in large part to a suffocating style that has kept their opponents off the scoreboard.
Keeping Tampa Bay from lightning the lamp will be a difficult task. The Lightning got a big boost when Nikita Kucherov returned for the start of the postseason. He quickly pushed aside any concerns of rust after missing the entire regular season, while racking up 27 points in 18 games. Kucherov leads the postseason in scoring and he ranks first in assists (22). He has given Brayden Point, who sits first with 14 goals and second with 20 points, a lift as well. The return of Steven Stamkos, who wasn’t in the lineup for just about all of last year’s playoff run, has made the Lightning even more dangerous offensively. He has accounted for seven goals and 17 points in 18 games. Stamkos has teamed up well with Alex Killorn, who has registered eight goals and 17 points, on the second line. Victor Hedman has been the most productive blueliner in the playoffs with 16 points (one goal, 15 assists) in 18 matches.
Montreal’s top offensive players haven’t been nearly as prolific, but the team has received at least two goals from 11 different skaters. Tyler Toffoli sits in the top 10 among playoff scorers this year and goes into the Stanley Cup Final with a team-leading 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 17 appearances. Nick Suzuki is close behind with 13 points (five goals, eight assists). After that Montreal doesn’t have any point producers in double digits. Cole Caufield and Corey Perry have nine points each, while Eric Staal and Joel Armia have accounted for eight points apiece.
The Canadiens have not received much production from the combination of Brendan Gallagher (two goals, three assists), Phillip Danault (three assists) and Artturi Lehkonen (three goals, one assist), but the trio has been great at shutting down the best players on the opposition. They work in combination with a defense corps that doesn’t allow many chances off the rush and makes life difficult for attacking players. Additionally, the team has Carey Price in net to clean up any mistakes.
The Lightning have a strong shutdown combination of their own with Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. The trio was excellent last year in the postseason as well and they can contribute offensively. The Lightning play a strong defensive game as well thanks to a deep group of blueliners and the talented Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes.
Price versus Vasilevskiy will be an interesting matchup in the series. Price has been excellent in the crease during the playoffs following a subpar regular season. He has a 2.02 goals-against average and .934 save percentage to go along with one shutout. Vasilevskiy was outstanding during the 2020-21 campaign and he has been even better in the postseason. He has a 1.99 goals-against average and .936 save percentage as well as four shutouts. Vasilevskiy has allowed two goals or fewer in 11 of his 18 starts this postseason, while Price has surrendered two goals or fewer in 12 of his 17 starts. Both netminders are more than capable of stealing games and could keep this a low-scoring Stanley Cup Final.
This is another lopsided series on paper for the Canadiens, as the Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year and have plenty of depth up and down the lineup. You could make the argument that Tampa Bay has the edge in goal, at forward and on the blueline, which is why it won’t come as a surprise that they will be a heavy favorite to repeat. However, that hasn’t made one bit of difference to Montreal throughout the team’s playoff run. The Canadiens have flourished in the underdog role, while getting timely scoring and frustrating the top scorers on the opposition. The penalty kill of Montreal has been red hot and they will need that to continue against Tampa Bay’s dangerous power play. The Lightning have a battle-tested and well-rounded group that will present some new challenges, but the Canadiens have established a blueprint for success against teams with talented lineups. Tampa Bay’s ability to adapt to any opponent and the Canadiens’ resiliency make this an intriguing matchup and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a tight-checking series.
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Players to Watch
Brayden Point - Point has been a goal-scoring machine in the postseason for a second straight year. He scored 14 times last year en route to the Stanley Cup and he has already equalled that total this year in five fewer contests. Point had a nine-game goal spree from June 3 to June 23. Unfortunately, he came up short of matching the NHL record set by Reggie Leach, who scored a goal in 10 straight playoff matches in 1976 with Philadelphia. Point has amassed 29 goals and 54 points in his past 42 postseason appearances.
Cole Caufield - Caufield has gotten better and more confident as the playoffs have progressed since being a healthy scratch for the first two games. He produced four goals and one assist in six contests during the Stanley Cup Semifinals against Vegas. Caufield has eight points in 10 outings going into the Stanley Cup Final, while skating on Montreal’s most dangerous offensive combination with Toffoli and Suzuki.
Anthony Cirelli - Cirelli has a personal best 10 points through 18 games this postseason. He will go into the Stanley Cup Final on a three-game point streak. Cirelli has one goal and three helpers during that span. He has been clicking with Killorn and Stamkos as Tampa Bay’s second-line center.
Tyler Toffoli - Toffoli has been an impact performer for the Canadiens all year and he will continue to be leaned on in the Stanley Cup Final. He has already matched his career-high for points in a playoff run through 17 games. Toffoli had seven goals and 14 points in 26 appearances when he won the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles in 2014.
Additional Series Notes
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup for the second time last year and can become the ninth team to win it in consecutive seasons.
The Canadiens have 24 Stanley Cups, with 23 coming as a member of the NHL. This marks the organization’s first trip back to the Final since 1993, which is the last time the team won the championship.
Tampa Bay’s power play has been excellent in the postseason with a 37.7% success rate. The Lightning rank first with 20 power-play goals and have made the most of out a league-leading 53 opportunities.
Montreal has scored nine times on 43 man-advantage chances for a power-play percentage of 20.9%.
The Canadiens have been far more successful on the penalty kill with a 93.5% efficiency rating. They have surrendered just three power-play goals against, while being shorthanded 46 times. Montreal hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in an NHL-record 13 straight playoff games. The team has killed off 30 penalties during that stretch.
The Lightning penalty kill has been solid as well, while posting a success rate of 86.8%. Tampa Bay has been shorthanded a league-high 53 times in the postseason and they have permitted just nine power-play goals against.
Montreal also has a league-best four shorthanded goals in the postseason, while Tampa Bay sits second with two.
The Canadiens have a record of 11-0 in the playoffs when scoring at least two goals.
Tampa Bay has a mark of 14-0 following a loss in the postseason since the start of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That represents the longest run in NHL history.
The Lightning rank first in the postseason with 15 first-period goals and the Canadiens sit second with 14. Tampa Bay has a much bigger edge in second-period goals with a league-leading total of 26 compared to Montreal’s 14.
The Canadiens have won a league-high five times in overtime this postseason, while losing once. The Lightning have lost all three games they have played beyond regulation time in the playoffs.
Montreal ranks first in the postseason with seven wins when leading after the first period, while Tampa Bay is close behind with six.
Joel Armia (COVID protocol) didn’t practice on Sunday and he won’t travel to Tampa Bay with the team. That puts his availability in doubt for the start of the series.
Jake Evans (concussion) could be in the lineup for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final after missing the last nine games if Armia is unavailable. He practiced on the fourth line on Sunday.
Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme missed the final four games of the Stanley Cup Semifinals after he tested positive for COVID-19. He expects to be available for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final and could become the third interim coach to lead his team to a championship. Assistant Luke Richardson has been running the bench in Ducharme’s absence.