The Stanley Cup Final is set. The Tampa Bay Lightning punched a return ticket to the Final with the surprising Montreal Canadiens. Game 1 is set to begin at Amalie Arena on Monday night. Can the Lightning repeat as champs? Will Montreal continue their Cinderella playoff run?
Most of you know I have been covering the Lightning for over a decade now. Some of you also know I’ve been watching the NHL since the 1965-66 season. Save your “old as dirt” jokes as I’ve heard them all – just from my Scrum Sports colleagues this week alone. My protege, Riley Gillespie-Wilson has been following the Lightning for 18 years now. Together, we are putting our 74 years of watching the NHL to good use. Here is our Stanley Cup Final preview and prediction.
The Lightning have two elite forwards on their top line in Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. Montreal’s top line centered by Phillip Danault has been used to stop their opponents top scoring line. Danault, along with Artturri Lehkonen and Brendan Gallagher have done an incredible job this postseason. Holding Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to one goal in round one. They also held both top lines of Winnipeg and Vegas to one goal in those series. They WILL not hold Point and Kucherov to one goal in the Stanley Cup Final.
Montreal has weapons in Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki and Josh Anderson but keep your eyes on. Cole Caufield. He’s fast, he’s highly skilled and energizes his team. I expect Jon Cooper to put his third line against Montreal’s second line of Suzuki, Toffoli and Caufield.
Ultimately, Tampa is rolling out four strong lines. Veterans on the Canadiens roster like Eric Staal and Corey Perry won’t be able to hang with the speed and quickness of any Lightning line they face. Advantage: Lightning
Forward corps are the engine that drives a successful offensive postseason. While D-man production certainly helps, the Bolts made the Cup Final with only three goals from their blue-line. The lack of production from the defense is unusual but understandable due to the lethal weapons of Kucherov, Point, and Steven Stamkos.
That’s where Tampa pulls ahead in this category. Game-changers. Power play machines. Near automatics, if you’re talking Point, who scored in nine consecutive playoff games, one shy of the all-time NHL record. Kucherov is the top point scorer in these playoffs.
While Montreal has some skill and speed in Cole Caufield, Josh Anderson, and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, to name a few, I don’t believe they have the same ability to alter a game’s course as the aforementioned trio of Lightning snipers. Depth also goes to Tampa Bay up front, as the “grey-beard” fourth line of Corey Perry and Eric Stall, along with Joel Armia, doesn’t have the same impact as the Maroon line. Advantage: Lightning
Dan: Victor Hedman is the best defenseman on the planet. Ryan McDonagh would be on the top D pairing for most if not all the rest of the NHL teams. Mikhail Sergachev is still learning the NHL game and should be a Norris Trophy contender in years to come. The rest of the defensive corps supplements these top three very well.
The Lightning defense is playing so well that in eight of the 18 games this postseason, they have allowed one goal or less. This includes four shutouts. Because the Lightning have such a high powered offense, their defense tends to get slighted. It would be to Montreal’s peril if they overlook the strength of this group. Advantage: Lightning
Riley: This is a tough category for the Habs, as the Bolts are just so thick on the back-end, with Mikhail Sergachev and David Savard manning the quote-on-qoute “third pairing” in blue and white.
To give credit where credit is due, Jeff Petry has had a phenomenal postseason, and was quite literally “seeing red,” playing through a tilt with blood filling his eyes. He’s more than just tough, though, he’s a dangerous offensive weapon, and a smart puck-manager. Petry and Shea Weber, however, highlight a blue-line that will struggle to keep up with the Lightning as far as puck management goes, as this will be a fast-paced, making plays under pressure type series, if the Lightning have anything to do with it. Advantage: Lightning
Dan: This Stanley Cup Final has probably the best goalie matchup we’ve seen in awhile. In Carey Price, we have the guy who for years was seen as the best goalie in the league. For Tampa, there is Andrei Vasilevskiy who is now considered by most to be the best goalie in the world.
Price has been very good this postseason. Allowing 2.02 goals a game and saving 93.4% of the shots he’s faced to go along with one shutout. These are great numbers but Vasilevskiy is better. He has allowed only 1.99 goals a game and is saving 93.6% of the shots he’s faced along with four shutouts. Vasilevskiy has done this arguably against tougher opponents than Price has faced. Advantage: Lightning
Riley: This will be the most high-calibre goaltending matchup of the 21st century in the Stanley Cup Final. The way I look at it, it’s the passing of the torch as far as the position goes. Price has been a monster for years, and quite honestly, has carried some subpar teams into the NHL playoffs. Now, he’s leading his team to the promised land. It’s time to put some respect on the Montreal Canadiens’ name, but more accurately, it’s time to admit Price could play goaltender for my Woodstock Junior Navy Vets Select team and carry them at least a round or two.
All joking aside, Price is a god among men, but so is Vasilevskiy. He’s quickly becoming a household name, and rightfully so. The two play the position so similarly. Both are no stranger to acrobatic saves, or conservation of movement. Cutting to the chase, this comes down to who executes better, not who the better all-around goaltender is. There’s no winner in this category. Simple as that. Advantage: Even
Dan: What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object – Stanley Cup style? Montreal’s penalty killers are operating at 93.5% efficiency. Tampa’s power play is scoring at almost 38% of their chances.
The three teams Montreal beat in these playoffs had the 7th, 16th and 22nd best power plays in the regular season. Clearly, they elevated their PK effectiveness. While the three Lightning foes had the 3rd, 6th and 17th best penalty kills this regular season. From my perspective, the Lightning’s power play numbers are more impressive than the Canadiens penalty kill. Advantage: Lightning
Riley: This category really boils down to Montreal’s absolutely machine-like penalty kill that is clipping at 93.5% this playoffs. Not a typo. They were an unbeatable force in their series against a very good Vegas squad.
To the power play, now, where Tampa Bay is 83% this postseason, good enough for fourth of all teams that skated in the dance this season. They simply have too many weapons. You want to cover Stamkos in his office? Okay. Kucherov time. Leave him open, he can dish to Hedman, as can Stamkos. Not to mention the netfront presence of Alex Killorn, who has done some damage on the PP. Haven’t even mentioned Point.
While this is a tight one, and I could see the Bolts breaking Montreal’s run of PK success, their 7th ranked power play, along with the lethal penalty kill, is enough to win me over. Advantage: Canadiens
Coaching and Intangibles
Dan: Cooper has won a Stanley Cup. In fact, at every level he’s coached he’s won a championship. High school, NAHL, USHL, AHL and now the NHL, he’s won. This gives the Lightning an intangible that Montreal simply doesn’t have. Adding home ice and the fact that the majority of the Lightning have already won a Cup and it’s no contest. Advantage: Huge for the Lightning.
Riley: Without their coach Dominique Ducharme on the bench due to a COVID situation, the Habs are a motivated group. However, so are Jon Cooper and his Lightning squad. The British Columbia native knows how to hype up his boys and truly believes in them.
Ducharme is set to return to the pines for game number three, and you have to imagine that game, on home ice, will be one Montreal will want badly. DO they get it? That depends on the flow of the series. Point is, Ducharme has done a fabulous job with this Habs team all season. GM Marc Bergevin’s acquisitions like Tyler Tofolli and Josh Anderson earned him GM of the year finalist.
Yet, Cooper has been here done that, and has the last change assuming the Bolts maintain home ice advantage. For those two reasons alone, I truly believe he can push this team across the finish line. Advantage: Lightning
Stanley Cup Final Predictions
Dan: Normally, we’d look at the regular season record between the two teams but this year is different. These two combatants did not meet this season. They did meet last season before the Covid shutdown but Price and Montreal would rather forget.
The Lightning had Price’s number in the four games they had in the 2019-20 season. He gave up 3.5 goals a game and only saved 85.7% of the shots he saw. Despite his playoff run so far, when the dust settles on this Stanley Cup Final, Price’s numbers will be closer to these than what he has produced so far this postseason. Prediction: Lightning in 5.
Riley: Two things I think are bound to happen in this series. The Lightning will run up the score at least once. Yes, on Carey Price. There’s simply too much talent.
On the flip side, Price will absolutely steal at least a game. I believe the Habs are legitimate enough to put up 3-4 one night and take another. Aside from that, Lightning in tight, grind-it-out, low-scoring tilts. One thing is certain. This will be a fun series. Fasten your seatbelts, “sit back and enjoy,Game 1. Prediction: Lightning in 6.
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