NHL Playoffs Stanley Cup Final Preview: Top Picks for Lightning vs. Canadiens (2021)

The Tampa Bay Lightning are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the second consecutive year, as they look to join the 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only teams to repeat as champions since 1998. Standing in their way is a team that nobody expected to reach the Final for the second consecutive year. Last year it was the Dallas Stars; this year, it’s the fourth seed from the much-maligned North Division: the Montreal Canadiens.

Montreal has been a heavy underdog in every single series so far, but they’ve consistently taken away the top players from each team they’ve eliminated. Since falling behind three games to one against Toronto, Montreal is 11-2 and has eliminated those top-seeded Leafs, swept the Jets, and went into their first full capacity environment of the season and knocked out the Golden Knights. It’s been a magical run that’s captivated the hockey world, and one Canadiens fans hope lasts another week or two.

Can the Lightning raise the Stanley Cup for a second straight season, or will the Canadiens shock us all once again and capture the 25th title in their history and the first since 1992-93? Let’s take a look at what each team brings to the table and my favorite way to bet the outcome of the 2021 Final.

Odds courtesy of DraftKings Sportsbook.

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Tampa Bay Lightning

The Lightning were the favorites to repeat coming into the 2020-21 season, and for a good reason. Tampa Bay returned nearly the entirety of the roster that won the 2019-20 Cup in the bubble – sans a few minor departures – giving them a rare and legitimate shot to ‘run it back’ with the same lethal roster still very much in its prime.

This playoff run hasn’t been without adversity for Tampa Bay, but adversity is something this team thrives on. They’re known to the casual fan as a high-flying, lamp-lighting team that’s built to outscore their opponent on any given night, and while on some nights that holds true, that’s not why the Lightning are four wins away from their second straight Cup. This team has the deepest roster in the NHL and one of the deepest in recent memory as well. They don’t allow their opponents to take a single shift off; all 18 skaters have the ability to make you pay by turning the smallest mistake into a scoring chance. 

Just as, or perhaps even more important to the Lightning’s success during this recent run of the regular season and now postseason dominance has been their ability to keep pucks out of their own net. In case a fourth-straight Vezina Trophy nomination wasn’t enough to tell the full story, let’s take a look at Andrei Vasilevskiy’s numbers this postseason. He’s saved a ridiculous 22.8 goals above expectation this playoff. For context, Carey Price is in second place with 12.1 goals saved above expectation. If you add up the third (Connor Hellebuyck), fourth (Marc-Andre Fleury), and fifth place (Jack Campbell) representatives, they’ve saved a combined 20.4 goals above expected. 

Vasilevskiy also leads all playoff goaltenders in save percentage (.936) and WAR (3.80) and is second in goals-against average (1.99). Big number 88 has once again been ridiculous for the Lightning, and they’ve needed every bit of it, especially in closeout games. Since being swept by Columbus in round one of the 2018-19 playoffs, Tampa Bay has now won seven consecutive playoff series. Vasilevskiy is 7-0 with four consecutive shutouts, a .967 save percentage, and a 0.89 goals-against average in those seven games.

Andrei Vasilevskiy now has four consecutive series-clinching shutouts to his name.

It's the longest streak in NHL history 🤯 pic.twitter.com/sj9RGnXYW4

— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) June 26, 2021

I mentioned how deep this team is, and what I think makes them too difficult for Montreal to handle is how all four lines can put the puck in the net. The Canadiens live to take away your top-scoring threats. But, Tampa Bay has the ability to send a player like Tyler Johnson out on their fourth line or pin teams in their own end with their dynamic third line of Blake Coleman, Yanni Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow. Oh yeah, and they’ve also got Nikita Kucherov – the playoff leader in points and assists – Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman, and Brayden Point – who just had his nine-game playoff goal streak snapped and leads all skaters in goals.

Centers to record 12+ goals in consecutive #StanleyCup Playoffs… in NHL history:

Brayden Point – 2020-21
Mario Lemieux – 1991-1992
Wayne Gretzky – 1984-1985 pic.twitter.com/MSHV6mp0Tz

— NHL (@NHL) June 22, 2021

Tampa Bay has dominated special teams this postseason and has dominated the high-danger areas; both are huge reasons why they’re in another Cup Final. The Lightning have 20 power-play goals this playoff – no other team has more than 12 – and are scoring at a 37.7% clip, which is only behind Colorado. They’re also killing 83.0% of penalties, which is fourth in the postseason but second among teams who’ve won at least one series. As for high-danger chances, the Lightning own 67.7% of the high-danger goals in their playoff games, and Vasilevskiy has a playoff-best .896 save percentage on high-danger looks.

They’re cashing in on their opportunities, and Vasilevskiy is making big saves in key spots. One thing to keep an eye on, however, is the health of Nikita Kucherov. He played just 45 seconds in Game Six against the Islanders and was clearly less than 100% in Game Seven. If he’s a non-factor, we could be in for a tighter series than many expect.

Montreal Canadiens

At the beginning of the postseason, most felt the Canadiens were ‘lucky’ to even be included. Calgary and Vancouver, two teams who seemed like playoff locks, underperformed and left the door open for Montreal, and the Canadiens have taken full advantage.

They’ve won 11 of their last 13 games in the playoffs, and they’re doing it all with a style that goes against how hockey is played in today’s NHL: with defense, physicality, and goaltending. In a league where it behooves teams to have three, sometimes even four lines in Tampa Bay’s case, who can score, Montreal has three or four lines who can consistently shut down an opponent’s offense. 

In their opening-round series, the Canadiens held the dynamic duo of Mitch Marner and Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews to just one single goal and nine points in seven games. Against Winnipeg, no Jet had more than three points all series, and the lethal duo of Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers combined for just a single goal and three assists. And finally, in their shocking upset of Vegas, the Canadiens held Mark Stone completely off the scoresheet, Max Pacioretty scored just once, and the ‘misfits line’ that propelled Vegas to the semifinals combined for just a single goal as well.

They’ve got a tall task ahead of them since Tampa Bay is much deeper than any team they’ve played thus far, and they’ve got loads more experience, having just won the Cup last year. Montreal will have to lean heavily on Carey Price, as they have throughout this entire run, and Price has been up to the challenge, looking like his vintage self. Price ranks second to Andrei Vasilevskiy in nearly every stat category this playoffs, including goals saved above expectation (12.1), goals-against average (2.02; third behind Vasilevskiy and Campbell), WAR (2.01), and save percentage (.934). He’s made highlight-reel save after highlight-reel save, and most of them seem to come in huge moments that keep the Canadiens within striking distance.

#GoHabsGo Carey Price since Game 5 vs Toronto

Record 11-2
GAA 1.85
Save % .938
Shutouts 1 pic.twitter.com/0URMj50Ko9

— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 25, 2021

Montreal’s penalty kill has also been superb, and Price is a huge reason for that, but the entire unit has been up to the task all playoff long. They’ve allowed just three power-play goals in 46 chances, good for a league-best 93.5% penalty kill rate. What’s more: they’ve scored four shorthanded goals of their own, making them a hard-to-believe plus-1 this playoff when down a man. The Canadiens also didn’t allow a single power-play goal to Vegas, but Tampa Bay presents a whole new challenge, and if it’s one Montreal can conquer, the playing field will be much more level.

The Canadiens don’t have anyone as offensively dynamic as Tampa Bay, and that could be an issue if they fall behind early in games. Tyler Toffoli leads Montreal in points this playoff (14), but young guns Nick Suzuki (13 points) and Cole Caufield (9) have stepped up and become the most threatening with the puck on their stick. Montreal has just two players – Toffoli and Suzuki – with double-digit points this postseason. Compare that to six for the Lightning, including two who’ve already topped 20 points.

Montreal has been counted out every step of the way this playoffs, so being a huge underdog is not only nothing new for them, it’s something they’ve relished overcoming. They firmly believe they belong right where they are, and they’re confident they can go toe-to-toe with the defending champs. And rightfully so. They’ve already lost Joel Armia for at least two games due to COVID, but this Canadiens team is for real and is a really fun team to watch night in and night out.

Series Picks

It’s not often a Stanley Cup favorite is -275 to win the series, so we’re going to have to get a bit more creative than in years past. If you’re a Canadiens backer, take them to win the series at +225; don’t overthink it. I think Montreal’s magical run finally comes to an end, and I don’t think it’ll take the full seven games to get it done.

Tampa Bay’s last series against the Islanders was the first series since they lost to the Capitals in 2018 that went a full seven games. According to the Athletic’s Dom Lusczyszyn’s predictor model, the Lightning have not only a 75.8% chance to win the Cup, but they’ve also got a 59% chance to do it in under seven games. Using those numbers, the Lightning -1.5 games should be -144. Instead, the line sits at -125, giving us about 3.5% of value. That’s my best bet for the series, Lightning -1.5 games (-125), and one we can win in three different ways. As long as the Lightning raise the Stanley Cup and it doesn’t take them the full seven games to do so, we cash another playoff ticket.

If you followed the second installment of my playoff preview series, we took Tampa Bay +475 to win the cup. If you’re more comfortable hedging and guaranteeing yourself a profit, take the Canadiens +225 to win the series. For $100 bettors on the Lightning Cup future, $176.92 on the Canadiens guarantees you $298.08 in profits.

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