A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog examining the one reason each Stanley Cup semi-finalist would win it all this year. And the one reason each would fail to do so. Looking back, it’s aged decently enough. Now, one could rightly ask the question of whether that’s really an impressive accomplishment when you cover literally every possible base in your predictions. And hey, it probably isn’t. But it’s 2021, so I’m taking any moral victory I can get.
Today, I do the same with the two finalists.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Why They’ll Win: They Can Offset Montreal’s Strengths
Carey Price has been phenomenal in the 2021 post-season; there’s zero question about that. Price is four wins away from almost certainly winning a Conn Smythe Trophy and is a monumental part of the reason Montreal is still playing hockey right now. But Andrei Vasilevskiy is playing every bit as well as Price. And there’s no reason to expect that to change.
The two goalies have nearly identical numbers during the post-season. Vasilevskiy has played 18 games; Price has played 17. Vasilevskiy leads the playoffs in save percentage (.936) and is second in goals-against average (1.81). Price’s .934 SP ties him for second with first-round opponent Jack Campbell, and his 2.02 GAA ranks third, behind Campbell and Vasilevskiy. Perhaps counterintuitively, Vasilevskiy has faced a slightly more difficult workload. That’s principally the result of Montreal’s series against Winnipeg being a cakewalk, whereas Tampa Bay’s series have all been tight. That, and Montreal’s penalty kill has been much better than the Lightning’s at limiting high-danger opportunities.
Now to be fair to Montreal, their playoff opponents haven’t exactly been throwing slouches between the pipes. Campbell, Connor Hellebuyck and a Marc-Andre Fleury-Robin Lehner timeshare is quite the goalie gauntlet to overcome.
But still, Montreal can’t definitively say it has the edge in the crease. And for a team weaker than its opponent, on paper at least, that hurts. Price has been Montreal’s trump card so far. That may not be the case this time around.
Tampa Bay also has the depth to force Montreal into ‘picking its poison.’ Phillip Danault has earned himself a lot of money this post-season; he’s spent his playoffs shadowing the likes of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, of Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty. And he’s shut them down. Danault will likely be tasked with doing the same to the line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat in the final. But Steven Stamkos (17 points in 18 games), Alex Killorn (the same), and Anthony Cirelli (10 in 18) have been firing on all cylinders as well. And that’s not even mentioning Tampa’s phenomenal back end. Neither does it bring up the likes of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman or Barclay Goodrow, all of whom can chip in secondary scoring.
When Toronto is playing its best hockey, it forces opponents to face same the same dilemma. And even without John Tavares anchoring its second line, Toronto’s depth did provide Montreal with some trouble in the first round. While Danault was busy shutting down the Matthews line, William Nylander and the Leafs’ second line feasted; nobody has scored more against Montreal in the playoffs than Nylander, who had eight points in seven games. Nylander's line mostly played against Montreal's second forward line. Since Cole Caufield joined that unit, it's become much more effective at 5-on-5. But Vegas' depth did, nonetheless, find success against the Habs. While Danault was busy with the Stone unit, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson were largely able to dictate the pace against the Habs’ other forwards.
Montreal deserves credit for reaching this point in the post-season. Gone are the days when you could handwave away their success with some explanation about luck and how they’re in for a sound beating ‘next round.’ But Tampa is positioned well to exploit some of Montreal’s weaker points – points the Habs’ opponents have used to their advantage so far in the playoffs. And the Lightning also have a goalie who can match Price save-for-save. That’s why the Lightning will be lifting Lord Stanley’s grail for the second time in as many years this July.
Unless that is...
Montreal Canadiens – Why They’ll Win: They’ll Continue to Play Shut-Down Hockey
Price has been fantastic. Danault has been fantastic. You know what else – thanks in no small part to those two – has been fantastic? Montreal’s penalty kill.
Montreal has killed 30 straight penalties in the playoffs. 30. As in, one more than 29. Or 10 more than 20 – that 30. The last time they gave up a power-play goal was on May 25, in Game 4 of the first round against the Leafs. Joe Thornton scored at 14:56 of the second period to give Toronto a 3-0 lead. Alex Galchenyuk would add an empty-netter (at even-strength), and Montreal lost that game 4-0. Since then, they’ve killed 30 consecutive penalties while posting a record of 11-2. In that time, they’ve actually scored three shorthanded goals. So, in other words, they’re a plus-3 when down a skater since May 25.
Overall in the playoffs, Montreal has allowed three power-play goals in 46 opportunities. They’ve scored four shorthanded goals overall. Incredible. Where does Montreal’s 93.5 percent success rate rank among the best playoff performances ever? Well, since the turn of the millennium, among teams to play at least 10 playoff games, Montreal ranks third. The 2003-04 Detroit Red Wings (96 percent in 12 games) and the 2018-19 Dallas Stars (94.6 percent in 13 games) are the only teams to do better. And neither was as proficient at scoring shorthanded.
I touched on Price above. He’s been sublime in the playoffs, and if Montreal wins the Cup, the 33-year-old netminder has earned himself a Conn Smythe.
Danault, too, has been unbelievable. The Habs have faced some pretty darn impressive offensive players during their Cup-final run. Auston Matthews just completed a season in which he scored 41 goals in 52 games. Since 1999-00, that’s tied with Alex Ovechkin’s 2007-08 for the second-best per-game goal-scoring mark (min. 41 games). Only Mario Lemieux in 2000-01 was better. Danault hounded Matthews all series long in the first round. What did the 23-year-old super sniper manage against him? One goal and four assists. That’s it. Mark Stone may not be a transcendent offensive talent, but he can rack up points. In the past two seasons, Stone has 124 points in 120 games, 13th in NHL scoring. He had a goose-egg in six games against Danault and the Habs. Nada. Stone and Danault played 47:22 together at 5-on-5. Stone wasn't on the ice for a single goal and had an expected goals percentage of 36.14.
Montreal has defied the odds every step of the way. They now go up against a team with superstars at every position; a team with a goalie just as good as Montreal’s and with a power-play unit clicking at an incredible clip. But that’s not going to matter. Because Montreal is going to shut them down, just like they have everyone else.
That’s why Montreal will win the Cup.