The Stanley Cup Finals are among us and what a matchup we have!
The reigning champions, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are looking to repeat after defeating the New York Islanders and taking an early lead in the finals. On the other side of things, the Montreal Canadiens continue their improbable run on their quest to hoist Lord Stanley for a 25th time. It is Canada’s first representative in the Cup Finals since Vancouver back in 2011, and the Habs first time since winning it all 28 years ago.
Both teams have had to go through some tough teams to get to this point, and both are well-deserving of being where they’re at right now. So, let’s take a look at the key areas that will help define who wins this year’s Stanley Cup:
Coaches: Let’s start with the guys who draw up the X’s and O’s, and who deserve a ton of credit getting their teams this far. Jon Cooper is the veteran coach in this series having been with the Lightning since 2013. Cooper has led Tampa Bay to two Cup Finals appearances losing the first one in 2015 to the Chicago Blackhawks, before bringing home the franchises’ second trophy last year knocking off the Dallas Stars in six games. He’s led his team to wins over the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and the Islanders. But for the Canadiens it’s a bit of a different situation. They fired head coach Claude Julien along with Kirk Muller back in February and were replaced by interim head coach Dominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson. Ducharme led his team on a run that included coming back from 3-1 to knock off the Toronto Maple Leafs, sweeping the Winnipeg Jets in four to claim the North Division, and most recently defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in six games. However, Ducharme has been out since Game 2 of their series with Vegas due to COVID protocols which forced Richardson to assume the head coaching position. He’s led the team to wins in three out of four post-season games and will remain the bench boss for at least the first two games of this series. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Defense: The Montreal Canadiens have been led by their “four Chris Prongers” as Luke Richardson likes to describe them. Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber and Joel Edmundson have led the way for the Canadiens in terms of minutes, and have become huge leaders on the team in how they approach each game. They’ve done a remarkable job in shutting down the opposing top’s lines and will have a tough task against the Lightning forwards. Tampa Bay’s defensive core is led by Victor Hedman who is probably the best all-around rearguard in the series. After him, there’s two former Canadiens draft picks in Ryan McDonagh and Mikhail Sergachev, both of whom are solid players. The bottom three defenseman are where the Lightning are the most vulnerable; Eric Cernak, David Savard and Jan Rutta are not great defenders, and when they are on the ice it would be the most opportune time for the Canadiens to strike. Advantage: Montreal
Forwards: The Lightning pose some of the best and most intimidating forwards in the entire league with Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point. Say whatever you want about them being nearly $20 million over the cap, this is a team that has a lot of depth at this position group and – similar to Montreal – loves to roll all four lines. The top five-point producers in the postseason have come from the Lightning with four of them being forwards including Alex Killorn, who is often forgotten with the other big names on the roster. Montreal’s forwards have been no slouch in these playoffs either; while they don’t have the same point production that the Lightning forwards have, they’ve got four lines that know how to play a full 200-foot game. Tyler Toffoli leads the Canadiens with 14 points, but it’s the play of young guns Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield that have garnered the most attention. The blend of those young players with veterans like Eric Staal, Corey Perry and Brendan Gallagher has led them to genuine success this postseason. Let’s not forget how well Phillip Danault has played defensively; he’ll face his toughest task in the playoffs in Steven Stamkos. Advantage: Tampa Bay
Special Teams: Special teams are such an important area in the playoffs and right now the Canadiens have made history killing off their last 30 penalties. That’s just absurd; they’ve gone up against some brilliant power play units in Vegas, Toronto and Winnipeg, and albeit Tampa Bay might be the most lethal of all those four teams, the Canadiens are up to the task. Offensively, their power play has gotten a huge boost ever since Caufield joined the lineup. Caufield, along with Suzuki, Toffoli and Perry have been a force on the power play converting 20 percent of the time. On the other hand, the Lightning are converting on 37.7 percent of their power play opportunities but they have yet to face a defensive unit like the Canadiens along with an elite goalie like Carey Price. They won’t nearly have the same success they have had in the previous three series and for that reason I am giving the slight edge to Montreal. Advantage: Montreal
Goalies: I saved the most interesting matchup for last and that is because it’s Carey Price versus Andrei Vasilevskiy. The latter has recorded four straight shutouts in series clinching games which again is just another absurd stat going into this battle. Vasilevskiy won his first cup last year posting an impeccable 1.90 goals against average while Price has played at a Conn Smythe level all throughout the playoffs. His cool, calm and composed demeanor is a big reason that Montreal is in the position they are in; his 2.02 GAA is a tick higher than Vasilevskiy’s 1.99, but you could argue that Price means more to his team. It’s a true Sophie’s Choice between the two best goalies in the league; either of them can steal a game if they want and you should expect a lot of low scoring games in this series. It’s too close to call so I am going to split it down the middle. Advantage: EVEN
Prediction: This article breaks down all the key aspects heading into the series, but it will ultimately come down to goaltending. Expect that to be the main storyline all throughout this series. However, my final prediction is Montreal in six games, they win their 25th cup in front of a home crowd at the Bell Centre.