2021 Stanley Cup Final Preview: Montreal Canadiens v.s. Tampa Bay Lightning

After another gruelling postseason, we’ve got the final matchup that we all hoped for and expected; the league’s model franchise, an offensive juggernaut and the defending champions Tampa Bay Lightning going up against the…(checks notes) Montreal Canadiens?

We all joked about how poor the quality of competition was in the North Division but somebody had to emerge from that side of the bracket and Montreal not only outlasted their northern brethren, but comfortably dispatched the Vegas Golden Knights in six games. 

You know, that team that walked all over the Presidents Trophy-winning Colorado Avalanche?

Whatever long odds the Canadiens faced to get here, they’re now only four wins away from capturing Lord Stanley’s chalice for the 25th time, and the first since 1993 which is coincidentally the last time a Canadian team lifted the Cup. 

What stands in their way are the reigning champions, a dynamo who boasts a more lethal arsenal of weapons than any of their previous opponents, and a goalie who has somehow outmatched the spectacular run of Carey Price.

The pandemic-induced compartmentalization of the regular season schedule means that these two teams have not faced off in 2021, but that won’t stop us from analyzing their results to glean how the contrast of their respective play styles and results of individual skater matchups might tip the scales one way or the other.

Regular Season Stats

All statistics are per 60 minute rates at 5v5 unless indicated otherwise, with league rank in parentheses where applicable.

Playoff Stats

All statistics are per 60 minute rates at 5v5 unless indicated otherwise, with league rank in parentheses where applicable.

Lineup Comparison

Kucherov’s WAR value is taken from the 2019-20 season as he did not feature in this year’s regular season.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a metric which combines a player’s impact in all facets of a hockey game (including but not limited to driving play, finishing scoring chances, shot suppression, and drawing or taking penalties) and presents it in a single all-in-one value.

In this case, the cumulative value is limited to a single season of play, making it more vulnerable to volatility in performance or spotty player health, and may not fairly evaluate players who have appeared in very few regular season games (ex. Cole Caufield played in 10 games after signing his entry-level deal).

The visual representation (inspired by Dom Luszczyszyn) is still useful to quickly evaluate a team’s strengths and weaknesses and presents potential areas of imbalance.

Offence

When it comes to a short playoff series against a single opponent, evaluating how the play styles of each combatant interact goes a longer way in predicting the final result than simply looking at regular season standings, especially in a season where each team was isolated to the same group of 6 or 7 divisional opponents for the entire year.

Despite their reputation as succeeding off of a high-flying, run-and-gun offence solely driven by skill and flair, the Lightning’s plan-of-attack revolves around the domination of their opponents down low and along the boards, as their forward group is bigger and heavier than given credit for.

In particular, Yanni Gourde, Ross Colton, and Anthony Cirelli are among the very best at recovering dump-ins and disrupting their opponent’s transition offence which in turn leads to puck recoveries in high-danger areas around the net which Tampa’s ruthless finishers can feast upon.

Their ability to retain possession of the puck and prolong offensive zone pressure often leads to a greater number of penalties drawn, with opposing defenders struggling to deal with their quickness and body positioning.

Blake Coleman and Nikita Kucherov are points of frustration in this respect, with both ranking in the top five of penalties drawn in this year’s playoffs, frequently putting Tampa in the position to capitalize on the man-advantage.

Brayden Point also offers a different vehicle of offence for the Lightning, with the star center virtually unstoppable when flying through the neutral zone and entering the offensive zone. Not only is he one of the best at entering the zone with possession (78% of completed entries; only Barzal, McDavid, Jack Hughes and Nik Ehlers were better), but he excels at ending his rushes with a scoring chance. He’s definitely one to watch in the Conn Smythe watch as Point is 5 goals away from tying Reggie Leach’s NHL record for playoff goals.

In comparison, the Canadiens employ a more diverse offensive strategy, ranking in the top third of the league in both chances generated off of the rush or a sustained forecheck or cycle. Their versatility makes it difficult to formulate a counter, as they can easily adapt to tactical changes.

Brendan Gallagher, Nick Suzuki and Joel Armia are Montreal’s leaders in chances per 60 off of the forecheck and their tendency to pressure defenders will be key in disturbing Tampa’s attempts at a coherent attack plan.

Gallagher in particular is a dual offensive threat, with his speed and predatory instinct key factors in doing extensive damage on the rush, which resulted in the league’s highest scoring chance generation per 60 minutes among forwards who played at least half of the regular season.

Tampa can count on a capable group of mobile defensemen in Hedman, McDonagh, and Sergachev, who are able to consistently exit the zone with possession and create chances in transition while Montreal’s defence group is susceptible to forecheck pressure, particularly in the pair of Joel Edmundson and Ben Chiarot, and often use a last-ditch launch off the glass to move out of the zone rather than trying to maintain possession.

In fact, Tampa and Montreal were 1st and 30th in total giveaways during the regular season, which makes sense given their personnel. If Tampa can eliminate their time and space to leave the zone with a clean stretch pass, Montreal’s preferred offensive strategy could be neutralized.

Via Corey Sznajder

Tomas Tatar was one of Montreal’s best playmakers and transition players in the regular season and his injury left a big hole in the top-six. In response, Nick Suzuki has stepped up considerably and taken on much of the playmaking duties with his 8 assists ranking second on the team, while anchoring the second line with Toffoli and Caufield and driving play to the tune of 58.9% expected goals at 5v5, 12th among forward lines with 50 minutes at 5 on 5. He also led the team in shot contributions (shots+passes) in their upset of the Golden Knights and will need his offensive instincts to take it to the Lightning.

Both offences also mix in a heavy dose of point shots from their defensemen, with the hopes of creating chaos in front of the net via a tipped chance or crease-crowding by their physically imposing forwards. Tampa’s forechecking prowess helps them collect “offensive rebounds” and recycle possession back to the point or down low behind the net. With both goaltenders on the top of their game, obscuring their lines of sight may be the only viable route to success.

The difference being that despite both defence groups contributing 25 goals from the blue line in the regular season, Montreal’s rearguards accounted for a greater proportion of their team’s scoring with Petry leading with 12 tallies on the year.

In terms of 5-on-5 offence, Tampa and Montreal are not dissimilar, and it would not be surprising to see the Canadiens occasionally control the flow of play at even strength. Their collective size and speed keep opponents out of dangerous areas and these traits often lend themselves to initiating quick counterattacks back up the ice. Unfortunately, Montreal is another in a long line of clubs who struggle to convert on their territorial dominance.

However, Tampa possesses offensive weapons that are a step above what Montreal has at their disposal, and that collection of top-end talent should be enough to outshine the Canadiens’ balanced forward group when it comes to finishing chances.

One thing to look for at the bottom of the lineup is Tampa’s fourth line of Johnson-Maroon-Colton, who have toyed with other team’s bottom-six with the fifth best share of expected goals (61.6%) among forward lines with at least 50 minutes played. The speed and vision of Johnson is complemented well by the physicality of Maroon and Colton who have been able to muscle their way into dangerous scoring chances. This battle will be a difficult one for the bottom half of Montreal’s lineup to win, but a necessary one if they are to match Tampa’s firepower elsewhere.

Yet, the health of former MVP Nikita Kucherov will be a lingering concern over the course of the series as he exited game six of the Lightning’s series with the Islanders before being questionable for, but ultimately playing in, game seven. He’s had a dominant playoffs (27 points in 18 games) but skating at less than 100% will be a blow.

The Lightning can take solace in the fact that even without Kucherov, they can still ice 8 players who were on pace for at least 20 goals over the course of a full 82-game season (Stamkos and Point were above 30). In comparison, the Canadiens had 5, and one was Caufield who only played 10 games before the playoffs started.

Caufield will be an x-factor for the Habs and with 8 goals in 25 regular season plus playoff games since joining the squad, he resembles one of Montreal’s only true finishers (alongside Toffoli) and he will need to convert on his chances to even up the gap between the forward groups. It also wouldn’t hurt if Josh Anderson could rediscover his scoring touch. To give him some credit, he’s been flying up and down the ice wreaking havoc, but that’s not enough at this point of the postseason.

I hope Carey Price was able to get some rest over the past few days because he’ll be busy come game one.

Defence

It has been fun to watch the hockey world slowly come to grips with Montreal’s sound defensive structure as they have successfully neutralized opposing offences during the first three rounds. Their primary calling card has pulled them within arm’s reach of the Stanley Cup.

Both team’s overall defence is built around deploying a responsible forward group which is quick and tenacious, and denies opposing team’s the chance to exit the zone cleanly. They force panicked zone exits off the boards or off the glass where opponent’s are often relinquishing possession in favour of safety.

Much has been made of the size and strength of Montreal’s blue liners and their ability to clear the net front and prevent quality chances against. Their defensive rates in terms of shot quality and quantity against were both among the top third of the league in the regular season. Montreal plays within their limits and is better for it.

Despite their reputation as an offensive dynamo, Tampa did not shy away from their defensive responsibilities. Like the Habs, the Lightning were able to effectively insulate their goaltending and lessen Vasilevskiy’s workload. Their emphasis on possession dominance via cycling in the offensive zone and poised zone exits and entries with possession ensured that they kept game action away from their own goal. They don’t allow an overwhelming quantity of shots or high-quality chances and instead suffocate the opposition and wring the life out of the game.

You know what they say, the best defence is a good offence.

Both teams were able to further lockdown their own slot area in the playoffs, preventing opposing forwards from creating chances in high-danger areas.

While Montreal’s defence core was effective in keeping opposing forwards away from their net with their size and physicality, they were not particularly successful at preventing zone entries at their blue line, likely because of their limited foot speed and agility on the backend.

In contrast, Tampa’s more mobile group regularly shut down neutral zone transition attempts which forced dump and chase attempts and played into Tampa’s ability to exit the defensive zone with controlled possession. It seems as though most teams understand that they can’t beat Tampa this way with every regular defensemen being targeted on zone entries at a below-average rate compared to other defensemen around the league. The only defensmen who allowed more than average zone entries were McDonagh and Ruuta, and even then they were just above average and did not allow many chances off of entries.

With water bugs like Tyler Johnson and Point looking to skitter into the offensive zone with speed, Montreal’s lumbering blue line may look like an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tampa’s cycle offence will put more pressure on the Canadiens so that initial successful zone entry attempt will become all the more important.

Somehow I’ve gotten this far without mentioning shutdown center Philip Danault, whose committed two-way play has resulted in Montreal dominating shot attempts and the quality of chances even when pitted against individual superstars (Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor and Nik Ehlers) and powerful team offences (Vegas). Among forward lines with 100 minutes played in the playoffs, Montreal’s top line of Danault-Lehkonen-Gallagher has posted the highest expected goals share, and is yet to be on the ice together for a goal against.

Coach Dom Ducharme obviously feels comfortable throwing that line on against any competition and their shot and chance share dominance will be key in keeping the Lightning at bay.

But, at the risk of sounding like a buzzkill, the Canadiens faced Leafs and Jets teams who were missing a star center (Tavares and Scheifele respectively) for most, if not all, of their series through injury and suspension.

I don’t say this to diminish Montreal’s accomplishments because they could only play who was in front of them, but simply to note that Tampa Bay holds a clean (relative to playoff standards) bill of health entering the final and their defence will be tested.

A new challenge awaits.

Goaltending

Team playoff results are often at the mercy of volatile swings of variance stemming from an extremely small sample of games when compared to the larger body of work in the regular season, where unsustainable streaks of luck and chance conversion generally even out over time.

More likely than not, the most successful playoff teams have to some degree benefitted from a hot streak of goaltending, and our two finalists are no exception.

As of the conclusion of the third round, Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy and Montreal’s Carey Price rank first and second in playoff save percentage respectively, and their impending duel will likely determine the final outcome of this series.

The case of Playoff Carey Price is particularly puzzling as for the past two seasons, Price has followed a pedestrian regular season with postseason performances more befitting of his enormous contract and the sterling reputation he carries among his peers.

Price has been astounding in all situations, but his save percentage while on the penalty kill has defied reality. Over 86 minutes of shorthanded time, has only allowed 3 goals on 63 shots, resulting in a playoff-leading .952 save percentage. Vasilevskiy, who is second, has only saved .898 of shots faced on the penalty kill.

To further highlight the abnormality of this run, off the 146 individual goalie playoff seasons since 2010-11 with at least 35 minutes of penalty kill time, only seven have finished with a higher save percentage than Price, and none played more games in their respective playoffs than Price’s 17 in 2021.

It would seem extremely unlikely that Price is able to sustain one of the best performances of the past decade, especially when facing one of the league’s best offences, but anything can happen over a 2-week period.

You might be thinking that the mind-boggling nature of Price’s play would have the Canadiens dreaming of a Stanley Cup parade in the near future, but the net-minder’s opposite number has been just as good, if not better in these playoffs.

Andrei Vasilevskiy has followed up a .927 save percentage in last year’s Cup run with an improved .936, which is even more impressive when you consider the unforgiving gauntlet of challengers that the Lightning have swept aside on their way to a second consecutive final in the Panthers, Hurricanes, and Islanders.

If you might be thinking that anybody could succeed behind the Lightning, Vasilevskiy has saved the most goals above expected this postseason. For everything that is said about the Lightning’s enviable collection of firepower (amazing what an additional $18 million can do for a team), Vasilevskiy still has to earn his keep on occasion.

However, he is playing at such a high level that there is room for some regression to creep in and when the margins are so thin in a final series, an ill-timed return to mere superstardom for Vasilevskiy could be potentially blindsiding for the Lightning.

Similarly, any interpretations of Price’s success hinges upon if you view him as someone capable of elevating his play in high-pressure situations or rather as a beneficiary of favourable puck luck after failing to post a save percentage over .910 in three of the past four regular seasons. In terms of his PK save percentage, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle and I would bet on at least a slight regression in the Final.

Whatever the case may be, we should enjoy two of this generation’s best goaltenders go toe-to-toe in such a high stakes matchup. However, Price and the Canadiens are crossing their fingers in the hopes of seeing this incredible run of form through to a championship.

They might just get it.

Special Teams

Both of Tampa and Montreal have seen their playoff runs buoyed by incredible success on special teams, and it’s not a stretch to believe that whoever experiences a dose of regression first will be on the losing end of the series.

In what may be another surprise, Tampa Bay are among the feistiest teams in the league and were called for the second most penalties this season behind only the Boston Bruins. This trend continued into the playoffs as Tampa finds itself atop the penalties taken leaderboard.

However, they also managed to draw the fifth most penalties in the NHL during the regular season, and the most in this year’s postseason.

It appears as though part of their game plan is to goad their opposition into taking penalties to set up their almost automatic power play by engaging in some rule breaking of their own, and relying on Vasilevskiy to bail them out on the penalty kill when the officials inevitably look to make “even-up calls”.

On the other hand, Montreal’s games have seen very few calls, with the Canadiens experiencing the least total penalties taken and drawn of the final four teams. How the games are managed by the officials will go a long way in setting the tone of the series.

The return of Nikita Kucherov after missing the entire regular season to recover from offseason surgery has bolstered the Lightning in all aspects of the game, not least the power play where they’ve seen their shot generation and conversion greatly increase in the playoffs, now ranking in the top third of the league in both respects.

His presence as a dual threat in terms of both finishing and passing helps facilitate Tampa’s strategy of cross-slot passes to one-time threats such as Steven Stamkos, consistently stretching opposing goaltenders and leaving them in vulnerable positions.

With their incendiary power play clicking at a lethal 37% conversion clip throughout these playoffs, the Lightning might have the right idea with this strategy.

In comparison, Montreal has improved slightly on their regular season power play, but not by much. The addition of Cole Caufield as a credible shooting threat has made their top power play unit more dynamic, as defences are now forced to respect his shot and open up passing options as a result. With two goals on the man advantage thus far, Caufield will need to continue firing attempts to augment Montreal’s strong 5v5 play.

A huge part of Montreal’s run has been their incredible reversal of fortune on their penalty kill, with the shorthanded units ranking in the bottom third of the league during the regular seasons and currently first in the playoffs. The last time the Canadiens allowed a power play goal was game 4 of their first round series with the Leafs, which coincidentally is when they began their comeback from 3-1 down.

As I pointed out in the goaltending section, Price’s superhuman performance while shorthanded has driven most of their success on that front. That’s not to say the skaters on the PK unit haven’t contributed to its success (6th out of 16 playoff teams in the quality of chances allowed), but the 14-year vet has pushed it to an almost incomprehensible level.

While their penalty kill unit has been effective at suppressing chances against in the playoffs, they have also managed to frequently turn the tide of in-game momentum by creating offensive opportunities of their own when down a man.

Joel Armia (3 shorthanded points this postseason) and Paul Byron (2 points) have been particularly prolific at capitalizing on their opponents’ sloppiness on the man advantage, and Tampa should be wary of Montreal’s deceptive “power-kill” unit which ranks second in these playoffs in terms of chances generated while on the penalty kill.

That’s not to say Tampa doesn’t possess similar weapons, as Coleman, Gourde, and Barclay Goodrow frequently leverage their size and positional awareness to pressure opposing skaters into costly miscues, ranking fifth in chance quality generated while shorthanded.

Not unlike Montreal’s dependence on Price, Vasilevskiy’s save percentage on the PK has masked some of the unit’s deficiencies, as it ranks 14th out of 16 playoff teams in terms of chance quality allowed but 4th in kill percentage.

In Caufield and Tyler Toffoli, Montreal has two snipers who could possibly exploit this potential chink in the Lightning’s armour and bring the defending champs to their knees. Difficult, but possible.

However the final penalty tally plays out, whichever of Tampa’s roaring power play or Montreal’s staunch penalty kill emerges victorious will go a long way in determining which team operates on the front foot for the majority of the series.

The Verdict

The Canadiens have fought valiantly to get to this point and deserve credit for beating three arguably more talented opponents in the process.

They strike in steady waves and their hulking group of blue-liners have succeeded at keeping opposing attacks to the perimeter and outside of key scoring areas, relieving pressure on Carey Price.

Price will need to continue his mind-boggling play for the Canadiens to stand a chance and after his performance in the first three rounds, it would be difficult to bet against him maintaining his excellence for another four to seven games.

However, Tampa is a uniquely dangerous beast and when fully healthy, can roll out a murderer’s row of forward lines that are safeguarded by one of the league’s best goaltenders to cover up any potential mishaps.

It may very well come down to a special teams battle, with Tampa’s potent power play clashing with Montreal’s suddenly impervious penalty kill, although this suggests that the officiating crew will be loathe to call a high number of infractions in the fear of being seen as deciding the games.

If Montreal can remain disciplined, they can reduce the number of opportunities that Tampa has to utilize their not-so-secret weapon and use their even strength prowess to strike when given the chance.

Regardless of your rooting interests, the series should be a demonstration of everything we love about playoff hockey – speed, physical attrition and a duel between two seemingly impenetrable goaltenders.

The Canadiens will keep the games close and gives the Lightning all they can handle, but ultimately, Tampa Bay should become the first back-to-back champ since the ’16 and ’17 Penguins.

Tampa in 5.

Data courtesy of Corey Sznajder, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, Moneypuck, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL.

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