Lightning, Canadiens face in Cup Finals

Lightning players celebrate following a goal during game one against the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals. Tampa cruised to a 5-1 win to open the series. // Photo by Douglas DeFelice USA TODAY Sports

This year’s NHL season has already been one like no other. The shortened 56-game season had the 31 teams split into four divisions, with every team playing eight games against each team in the same division. This layout reduced travel by categorizing teams by region, creating an all-Canadian North division for the first time in NHL history while adjusting to the border closure. Repetitive meetings between teams fueled new rivalries between otherwise non-divisional teams.

A new playoff format has led to a number of exciting series that have not and may never happen again, along with plenty of upsets. The North division has seen much of the drama, proving that pure offensive dominance does not win championships. Notable underdog Montreal Canadiens have made an unprecedented run in their quest for the Stanley Cup.

Entering the playoffs with the least amount of regular season points and 500-to-1 odds, the Canadiens have upset three impressive teams for their bid in the Stanley Cup Final. The Canadiens became the first Canadian team in the finals since Vancouver in 2011, and secured their first berth in the finals since winning the Stanley Cup 28 years ago.

Montreal’s stellar run for the cup begins on the brink of elimination, down 3-1 in their best of seven series against Toronto. A heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs managed to fall to Montreal in seven games, continuing their cursed playoff drought, having not won a series in 17 years, and falling short of the Stanley Cup for a record-tying 54 consecutive years.

In the second round, the Canadiens handily swept a favored Winnipeg Jets team that had just swept the Edmonton Oilers in round one. After taking care of the Vegas Golden Knights in six games, the Canadiens have gone 11-2 since game five against Toronto in round one. The win over Vegas occurred after the Knights knocked off Stanley Cup favorite Colorado Avalanche in round two, securing their West division victory.

The Canadiens enter the Cup Final with a couple new faces. At just 20 years of age, breakout rookie Cole Caufield has contributed heavily to his team with four goals and five assists despite being among the smallest on the ice at 5’7”. On the coaching side, interim head coach Dominique Ducharme took the helm following the firing of Claude Julien mid-season. Unfortunately, Ducharme will not be present until game 3 of the series after testing positive for COVID, after already missing four games against Vegas.

On the other side of the Stanley Cup Final is the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Their playoff story began as the third seed in the Central division. They faced the Florida Panthers in round one, gaining a key player back in their roster in the process. Nikita Kucherov missed the entire regular season following hip surgery after winning the Stanley Cup in 2020. His contributions to the team have propelled the Lightning, with Kucherov leading all players in playoff points and assists, with seven goals and 23 assists through game one of the finals. The Lightning boast the top five point leaders in the 2021 playoffs thus far, translating their offensive dominance into playoff success.

The Lightning knocked off the Florida Panthers in six games to advance to the second round. The Carolina Hurricanes finished off the Nashville Predators after four of six games in that series required overtime. Tampa Bay took care of the Hurricanes in five games, facing the East division winning New York Islanders in the third round. This thrilling series ended in seven games, with the Lightning coming out on top to advance to the Stanley Cup Final once again.

The best of seven Cup Final matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning promises to be an exciting matchup. This is the first battle between two traditionally Eastern Conference teams since 1980, as the rule changes have made this possible for this unorthodox season. The Lightning entered this series heavily favored over Montreal, but the Canadiens have proved resilient time and time again throughout the playoffs.

Notable statistics in this series involve the phenomenal goaltending on both teams. Montreal goaltender Carey Price has impressively held his own, allowing just 35 goals in 17 playoff games and holding Vegas to two goals or fewer in the last five games of round three. Meanwhile, Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has given up 36 goals in 18 playoff games, with shutouts in all three series-clinching wins thus far.

Another key matchup in this series stems from special teams. Montreal’s solid defensive play has led to them killing 93.5% of their penalties, with 32 consecutive penalty kills in a 14-game span. However, Tampa Bay’ powerhouse offense looks to break through, scoring on a whopping 37.7% of their power plays.

Impressive numbers on both sides make for a competitive series that could very well come down to rewarding the better goaltender. The Lightning continued their goal-scoring success, putting up five goals in their game one win, Kucherov contributing two of them along with an assist. The physicality was ever-present in the first game, with a combined 115 hits between the two teams. The Canadiens look to bounce back and generate more offensive chances throughout the series, while the Lightning fight to extend their 1-0 series lead.