The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens present us with a very unlikely Stanley Cup Final matchup. Not only because the two teams were separated by 17 points in the standings during the regular season, but because in a normal year with a normal schedule and a normal playoff format they could never even meet in this round.
On one side, we have the defending champion Lightning. A fast, skilled, experienced, playoff-tested team that has established itself as one of the league’s superpower franchises on the ice. They are loaded with All-Stars and award winners all over the roster and have one of the most complete teams in the league.
On the other we side we have a Canadiens team that is playing to end a 28-year championship drought for not only their own franchise, but for an entire nation that has now put its support behind them.
It all starts on Monday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Tampa Bay.
Here are the main storylines to watch for.
Three Storylines For The Series
1. An elite goalie matchup. At different times over the past decade Carey Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy have been considered the league’s best goalie. Price had a strong claim to that title between 2013 and 2017 when he was posting huge numbers and elevating the Canadiens to a level that was probably above their talent level at the time. He won a Vezina Trophy during that stretch and finished in the top-four of the voting two other times (including another year as a finalist).
While his play has declined over the past couple of years, he has still been magnificent in the playoffs the past few years.
Vasilevskiy is the league’s best goalie today and has been ever since he took over the starting job in Tampa Bay. He is a Vezina finalist every year, is always among the league leaders statistically, has been extremely durable, and has been incredible in big moments. He enters the Stanley Cup Final having recorded a shutout in four consecutive series-clinching wins, an NHL record.
What is remarkable about both of their postseasons this year is how identical their overall numbers have been.
Price: .934 all situations save percentage, .932 even-strength, .952 penalty kill, 2.02 goals against
Vasilevskiy: .936 all situations save percentage, .942 even-strength, .897 penalty kill, 1.98 goals against
Goalie matchups do not get much bigger than this.
[Related: How the Canadiens shocked the NHL]
2. Legacies and history. Speaking of Price, he has done just about everything a goalie can do in hockey with one big exception: The Stanley Cup.
Olympic gold medalist, he has been a league leader in wins and save percentage, and he is a six-time All-Star. The Stanley Cup is the only thing remaining, and now, at age 33, he gets his first opportunity to play in the Stanley Cup Final. If he is able to backstop the Canadiens to one of the most improbable and unlikely championship runs it is probably the last missing piece he needs for a Hall of Fame resume.
It is a similar story for defenseman Shea Weber who is getting his first Stanley Cup Final appearance in his 16th NHL season at the age of 35. Given where they are in their careers they are not going to get many more opportunities like this in their careers.
On a team level, the Canadiens are looking to win the 25th Stanley Cup in franchise history and the first since the 1993 season. That would also end the championship drought for all of the Canadian NHL franchises.
3. Lightning going for the repeat. Whether they win this series or not the Lightning have already established themselves as the elite team in the NHL right now. Since the start of the 2014-15 season they lead the league in regular season wins, playoff wins, playoff series wins, and are playing in their third Stanley Cup Final during that stretch. Outside of that First Round sweep at the hands of Columbus two years ago (following an NHL record 62-win regular season) they are constantly going far in the playoffs. The outcome of this series will not change that.
But if they do win it and successfully defend their title, that takes them an entirely different level of success. That puts them among the all-timers as a repeat champion. Over the past three decades there have only been three other repeat champions (the Pittsburgh Penguins on two different occasions in 1991 and 1992, and then in 2016 and 2017; the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998).
Big Question For The Lightning: Can their power play solve Montreal’s penalty kill?
This is your classic unstoppable force vs. immovable object matchup.
The Lightning enter the series with a power play unit that is scoring on more than 37 percent of its opportunities this postseason, which is absurdly high rate for a team this deep into the playoffs. Going back over the past 20 seasons, no team that has played in at least 18 playoff games in a single postseason has ever had a power play that efficient, while only one team (the 2018-19) Bruins topped the 30 percent park (32.4). So they are clicking at a rate that no team scores at.
You take a penalty against this team, they are going to make you pay for it.
But for as dominant as the Lightning power play has been, Montreal’s penalty kill has been equally dominant.
The Canadiens enter the series having killed 93 percent of their penalties this postseason, a mark that would also be the best in the NHL over the past 20 years (minimum 18 games played in a single postseason). Price has been a huge part of that, but the Canadiens have also been great at suppressing shots and chances.
Something has to give here.
Big Question For The Canadiens: Can Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher shut down another star?
Danault has played 17 games for the Canadiens this postseason has yet to score a goal. He has three assists. And he is still one of the Canadiens’ most important players for his ability to help shut down each team’s opposing star forward.
In the first three series the Canadiens have limited Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor, Mark Stone, and Max Pacioretty to a combined four goals. All of them saw significant time against Danault and Gallagher in their series.
[Related: Stanley Cup Final X-Factors]
Together, the Danault-Gallagher duo has played more than 185 minutes of hockey together this postseason in all situations. With them on the ice the Canadiens have allowed zero goals and completely tilted the ice in their favor in terms of shot attempts, scoring chances, and expected goals. They have done all of that while being deployed in almost exclusively defensive roles (specifically defensive zone starts to shifts). During the regular season the Canadiens outscored teams by a 23-7 margin with that duo on the ice during 5-on-5 play and, again, controlled the game territorially. They have been magnificent. They are almost certainly going to get tested again with Point and Kucherov.
Potential Impact Player To Watch For Lightning: Brayden Point
It probably goes without saying right now that Point is the player to watch given his historic post season goal scoring.
He enters the series with 14 goals in 18 games, and is leading the league in postseason goal scoring for the second year in a row. For his career he already has 36 goals in 62 playoff games, a goal scoring pace that puts him among the giants of the games.
Potential Impact Player To Watch For Canadiens: Cole Caufield
Carey Price is the player driving this run. Tyler Toffoli has been their most consistent player all season. Nick Suzuki is going to be a franchise cornerstone. Phillip Danault is the shutdown guy. All of them are playing an essential role. Caufield, though, can be the player that changes a game or a series. He has that sort of potential and has shown it quite often since joining the team late in the season. He has quickly become one of the Canadiens’ most dangerous offensive players and has at least one point in seven of their past eight games. He also has a goal in four of the past six games.
2021 NHL playoff schedule: Stanley Cup Final
Game 1: Mon. June 28: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 2: Wed. June 30: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. July 2: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
Game 4: Mon. July 5: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 5: Wed. July 7: Canadiens at Lightning, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 6: Fri. July 9: Lightning at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sun. July 11: Canadiens at Lightning, 7 p.m. ET (NBC / Peacock)
More NHL News
Lightning vs. Canadiens 2021 Stanley Cup Final preview originally appeared on NBCSports.com