The Stanley Cup Final is upon us and the most prestigious award in all of hockey will either be awarded to a team that’s $18 million over the salary cap or a team whose roster looks like it’s $18 million below the cap.
In all seriousness, the upcoming showdown between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning wasn’t one many people had pencilled into their bracket challenge. Entering the postseason, there were numerous questions surrounding Tampa Bay’s health, specifically focused on star forward Nikita Kucherov, who missed the entire 2020-21 regular season.
As for Montreal, well, it finished with the fewest points of any team that qualified for the playoffs, so, expectations weren’t very lofty. Both teams overcame challenges and now find themselves four wins away from glory.
The Lightning have a chance to win back-to-back Stanley Cups, something just one franchise (the 2016 and ’17 Pittsburgh Penguins) has done since the start of the new millennium, while the storied Canadiens can win their NHL-leading 25th championship and first since 1993.
Here are some predictions as to how the series will play out:
Stanley Cup winner: Lightning in 6 games
Montreal has been an incredible story to follow this postseason and has proven it deserves to be in the Stanley Cup Final given the way it’s dismantled opposing teams’ top stars. In large part to the efforts from Phillip Danault, Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, the Canadiens have limited elite talents like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, Blake Wheeler, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner to nine even-strength points through a combined 30 individual games played. The Habs have also been otherworldly on the penalty kill, earning a 93.5-percent success rate when shorthanded, the best-ever mark of any team to reach the Cup Final.
The issue I see the Habs encountering derives from the Lightning’s extreme depth. Naturally, a team that’s nearly $20 million over the salary cap is going to have some added luxuries other teams don’t. For example, Tampa Bay’s second line of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Steven Stamkos is arguably more offensively talented than the Vegas Golden Knights’ first line of Pacioretty, Stone and Chandler Stephenson. This kind of forward depth, which extends to the Bolts’ bottom-six, could render Danault, Weber and Chiarot’s ability to stifle opposing first lines less devastating.
Additionally, for as good as Carey Price has been this postseason, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been even better. In the playoffs, Vasilevskiy has posted a better save percentage (.936 to .934), goals-against average (1.99 to 2.02), save percentage above expected (.022 to .012) and more shutouts (four to one). Montreal will be in a situation where it will not hold a clear and distinct edge between the pipes.
Conn Smythe Trophy: Andrei Vasilevskiy
Since the 2010-11 postseason, just four goalies with 16 or more games played have produced a better save percentage than Vasilevskiy’s impressive .936 mark. The two netminders ahead of him on this list that won the Stanley Cup — Jonathan Quick and Tim Thomas — both received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player for their respective teams.
With that in mind, it should be expected that the “Big Cat” claims the honour this postseason if the Lightning emerge as the Stanley Cup champs. An anecdote that may be working in his favour is that he did not win the trophy last year, as Victor Hedman earned the nod after Tampa Bay eliminated the Dallas Stars. The voters may be willing to give him some more recognition this time around, especially considering his increasingly impressive numbers.
Additionally, the Russian puck-stopper has shut out his opponent in each of the past four series-clinching wins.
Series points leader: Steven Stamkos
As mentioned earlier, the Canadiens have demonstrated the ability to completely suffocate opposing teams’ top offensive units. Luckily for the loaded Lightning, Stamkos plays on the second line, where he’ll likely avoid the death trap of Danault, Weber and Chiarot.
Stamkos has also been a premier producer for the Bolts these playoffs, as his seven goals are third-best on the squad and his 17 points are tied for third. My expectation is that Tampa Bay’s top line of Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point and Kucherov will struggle to produce at its current rate, but lines two through four will find a little more success.
Game-by-game score prediction
Let’s take a stab at this just for fun…
Game 1: 4-2 Lightning
Game 2: 2-1 Lightning
Game 3: 2-0 Canadiens
Game 4: 3-0 Lightning
Game 5: 2-1 Canadiens
Game 6: 2-1 Lightning
Total goals scored: 20
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