It’s been a truly remarkable postseason run for the Montreal Canadiens.
This is a team most people left for dead before the playoffs even started, never mind when they were down 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round.
Now here they are, in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993, just four wins away from the franchise’s 25th championship.
There’s just one little thing standing in their way: the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Lightning have high-end talent. They’re deep and well-rounded. Oh, and they’re the defending champs.
The Bolts have played seven playoff series over the last two seasons. Not only have they won all seven, but only one of those series needed a Game 7. At no point over the last two postseasons has Tampa Bay lost back-to-back games.
The Habs have one hell of a final boss battle on their hands here. They’re going to have to go through the champs if they want to be the champs.
We should all know better by now than to write off the Canadiens, though. They may be heavy underdogs, but that’s a role they’re pretty comfortable in at this point. There are even a few areas where they may have the edge over the Lightning.
1. Penalty kill
The Canadiens would be wise to not push their luck too much against a Tampa Bay power play that is clicking at a cartoonish 37.7% in these playoffs. The power play has accounted for more than a third of the Lightning’s goals in the postseason (20 out of 58). For perspective, the Habs’ power play, which is converting on a respectable 20.9% of their chances, has provided just over a fifth of their playoff goals (nine out of 43).
Tampa’s penalty kill hasn’t been bad, either, operating at 83.0% in the playoffs. With that kind of success on special teams, it’s no surprise that the Bolts made it back to the final.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s penalty kill was actually a problem for the team during the regular season. It ranked tied for 23rd at 78.5%. Like a lot of areas with this team, though, something seems to have clicked after Game 4 against Toronto.
Since then, the Canadiens have killed off 30 straight penalties over a span of 13 games. Both the Jets and Golden Knights’ power plays failed to score a goal in their series. The Habs have actually scored more goals down a man than they’ve allowed in these playoffs.
This is going to be the biggest test yet for Montreal’s penalty kill. Again, playing with discipline and staying out of the penalty box as much as possible needs to be a focus for the Habs. They aren’t going to go the whole series without taking a penalty, though, and they’re going to need their PK to continue coming up big when they do. Shutting down Tampa Bay’s power play would go a long way to giving themselves a chance in this series.
The goaltending duel between Carey Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy in this series could be one for the ages.
Both have won the Vezina Trophy. Vasilevskiy is up for the award for the fourth straight year. Their stats in these playoffs are both terrific. They’re also incredibly close, with Vasilevskiy’s being just slightly better. He owns a .936 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average, posting four shutouts in 18 starts. Price has a .934 save percentage, 2.02 goals-against average, and one shutout in 17 starts.
But Vasilevskiy plays on a stacked team that often doesn’t make his job all that difficult. Tampa Bay’s 1-0 victory in Game 7 against the New York Islanders in the semi-finals was a great example of that. If you just look at the score you might think Vasilevskiy stole that game, but the Lightning hardly made him break a sweat. They barely let the Islanders get any decent scoring chances against him. Vasilevskiy only had to make 18 saves in what looked like one of the easier shutouts you’ll ever see a goalie record in the NHL.
If the Lightning win the series, Vasilevskiy will just be one of several candidates for the Conn Smythe. The top five scorers in these playoffs all play for Tampa Bay.
If the Canadiens win? Unless someone like Tyler Toffoli or Cole Caufield goes off for like 10 goals in the final, Price is a slam dunk.
Price has shown the ability to raise his game in the playoffs. Now the Habs need him to find yet another level in the final.
3. The Danault line
Perhaps the single most incredible thing about this run for the Habs is the way they’ve been able to neutralize their opponents’ top offensive players.
Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, as you may have heard, didn’t have a great series against Montreal, scoring a combined one goal. Then it was Kyle Connor, Nik Ehlers, and Blake Wheeler combining for just a lone goal in the Jets series, and Mark Scheifele also didn’t hit the scoresheet in the one game he played in.
Then the top seven goal-scorers for the Golden Knights in the regular season — Max Pacioretty, Mark Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch, William Karlsson, Chandler Stephenson, and Reilly Smith — combined for just two goals in their semi-final series.
This hasn’t just been Price’s work. Phillip Danault hasn’t scored a goal yet in the playoffs and has just three assists in 17 games, but he’s probably still raised his free agent stock quite a bit with his defensive performance. His sixth-place finish in Selke voting this season is seeming impossibly low given what we’ve seen from him in the postseason.
Montreal’s defensive play in these playoffs has been a team effort. There are a lot of guys who deserve credit for it. The work of the Danault line has been especially impressive, though.
Most team’s first line is their best offensive line. Montreal’s “first line” of Danault, Artturi Lehkonen, and Brendan Gallagher is essentially a shutdown line. They aren’t providing much offensively — though they did team up for the overtime goal that sent the Canadiens to the final — but the team is still thrilled with what they’re doing against the other team’s top line.
This is another way the Lightning present a very difficult test for the Habs. Shutting down the likes of Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point is going to be no easy task. If anyone’s up for it, though, it’s Danault’s line.
4. Montreal has Cole Caufield and Tampa doesn’t
Another reason it’s time to forget what the Canadiens did in the regular season? They didn’t have Cole Caufield for most of it.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe even noted after their series against the Habs that he felt the dynamic changed once Caufield was inserted into the lineup. Even if he wasn’t scoring at first, he was generating opportunities for himself and his linemates. You could tell the goals were going to come.
Against the Knights, they did. Caufield’s high-end offensive skill was on full display against Vegas as he led all players in the series with four goals in six games.
GOAL. CAUFIELD. 🚨
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 25, 2021
While the Habs will be asking the Danault line to shut down the Lightning’s top threats, they’re likely going to rely heavily on the line of Caufield, Toffoli, and Nick Suzuki to generate their offence in this series. He may have been a university student just a few months ago, but Caufield is looking like he’s up to the task.
5. Higher beings
Come on, are you really telling me the Hockey Gods don’t want the Habs to win the Cup this year?
Montreal: Big fans of Fleury
— Hockey Night in Canada (@hockeynight) June 19, 2021