2021 Stanley Cup Final: Full preview and predictions
Chris Peters lays out everything you need to know and makes his prediction for the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals.
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One of the most bizarre and winding NHL seasons of all time will reach its conclusion with a surprising Stanley Cup Final that will feature a Canadian team for the first time in a decade, two teams from what is normally the Eastern Conference and, perhaps most normally, the defending Stanley Cup champion. The Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning will go head-to-head in the best-of-seven series starting Monday night in Tampa.
That the Lightning are there is no surprise. The defending champs didn’t have the best regular season performance, but they have been on a roll in the playoffs, as expected. Meanwhile, the Canadiens were counted out before the playoffs even started. They looked like their stay would be brief when they trailed the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in their first-round series, but stormed back to stun the top team in the all-Canadian North Division and has continued to roll, proving any and all doubters wrong along the way.
Once again, Montreal will enter the series as an underdog, with their fair share of non-believers. Though they’ve faced many tough tests in this postseason, their toughest foe awaits. Tampa Bay has not lost consecutive games in these playoffs, ranked second among all playoff teams with an average of 3.22 goals for per game and 2.06 goals against per game, while boasting five of the top six scorers in these playoffs.
After a season of so much uncertainty and even some disruption, this postseason has provided non-stop entertainment. As the puck is about to drop on the final series, here’s a look at a few things to know and watch for.
Epic goalie battle
While there are many stars in the series, two of the biggest and most important will be the heavily-padded men guarding their respective nets.
Carey Price of Montreal and Andrei Vasilevskiy of Tampa Bay are two of the world’s best goalies. According to the NHL, this series will mark the first time two former Vezina Trophy winners will go head-to-head in a Stanley Cup final since Dominik Hasek squared off with Eddie Belfour in 1999. Price won the award in 2015, the same year he was voted the league’s MVP and won the Hart Trophy. Vasilevskiy won his first Vezina in 2019 and is a finalist for the award again this season.
In these playoffs, Vasilveskiy and Price have been, hands down, the two best goalies playing. Vasilevskiy leads all goalies with a .936 save percentage and four shutouts in 18 starts, while Price has a .934 mark and one shutout in 17 games. They have been the last line of defense for their teams and a big reason both have reached this stage.
It’s an interesting dynamic as Price was the de facto “best goalie in the world” for the better part of the last decade, but over the last three or four seasons, Vasilevskiy has staked a pretty significant claim to the title. This series may end up being used as a referendum on that ongoing status, but no matter how you slice it, if you love goaltending there’s no way you can look away from this series. These are two of the very best.
Special teams showdown
The Tampa Bay Lightning have scored on 37.7 per cent of the power plays they’ve gotten in these playoffs. Even though fewer penalties are usually called in the final, it’s been almost automatic. However, even more automatic has been the Canadiens’ seemingly impenetrable penalty kill which has squashed a staggering 93.5 per cent of shorthanded situations. It could be one of the defining battles of the entire series.
The Lightning’s Brayden Point has seven power-play goals on his own. Teammates Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn each have four, while defenseman Victor Hedman has 11 assists on the man advantage. That’s a lot of different weapons you have to be aware of.
That’s why Price is so important. He has stopped 60 of 63 shots when the other team is on the power play, good for a .952 save percentage. That’s a ridiculous figure. While Montreal’s PK structure is so sound and makes it harder on the opposition, once you cut through that, you still have to try to shoot a puck through the wall that is Price. It’s going to be very fun to see these two special teams units go head-to-head.
Montreal’s kids are alright
Three of the most important pieces of the Canadiens’ offensive attack in this postseason are 21 or younger. Nick Suzuki is second on the team with 13 points in 17 games. Rookie Cole Caufield, who had 10 games of NHL experience going into the playoffs, scored four goals in the last series alone and is tied for third on the team with nine points. Meanwhile, Jesperi Kotkaniemi has five goals and seven points in 16 playoff contests.
Suzuki and Caufield in particular took over segments of the last series. Caufield scored a crucial goal in Game 6 against the Vegas Golden Knights and has factored in multiple big goals of the playoffs, whether scoring or assisting on them. Suzuki, despite his youth, is becoming one of the better two-way centers out there.
This series is going to offer a significant challenge, but the biggest question so many of us had was if Montreal could score. The addition of Caufield has almost single-handedly quieted those fears as the 20-year-old, who spent most of the season playing at the University of Wisconsin before signing with the Habs, has been automatic of late.
All three of those players look to be significant pieces of Montreal’s future, but it’s been absolutely remarkable to see how much they’ve impacted their present.
Tampa Bay’s quest for dominance
Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups was looking impossible in the salary-cap era, with the Penguins in 2016 and 2017 proving that it could be done. The Tampa Bay Lightning now have a chance to be the second to accomplish that with no signs of slowing down.
The Lightning have players that have taken over this postseason. Brayden Point is five goals short of tying the all-time record for goals in a single postseason, which is co-held by Reggie Leach of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers and Jari Kurri of the 1985 Edmonton Oilers. Point is on some kind of run, the likes of which we have not seen since the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Sidney Crosby scored 15.
Nikita Kucherov, who says he’s good to go for the Stanley Cup Final after playing in Game 7 against the Islanders despite leaving Game 6 with an apparent injury, is also putting up silly numbers. He currently has 27 points, 22 of which are assists. It is a continuation of what he did en route to the Stanley Cup last season, when he put up 34 points. Only seven players in the salary cap era have topped 30 points in a single postseason, one of whom is Kucherov. It looks like he could be the first to do it twice if he’s healthy enough.
Lastly, he doesn’t show up on the score sheet a whole bunch, but depth forward Patrick Maroon has a chance to do something that has not been accomplished since 1983. If the Lightning win the Stanley Cup, Maroon will be the first NHL player to win three consecutive Stanley Cups as an individual since several on the 1983 New York Islanders team. Maroon won his first Cup with the St. Louis Blues in 2019, then won with Tampa in 2020 and could make it a very, very rare three-peat for an individual player.
The Montreal Canadiens have made a habit of making us that do this for a living look awfully foolish. I’ve picked against them every single series and I’ve been wrong every single time. This series feels different, however.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are a different animal than anything they’ve faced. First off, they’ve won it. They know what it takes. Additionally, Tampa just got a very good preview of what this series will be like when they played the New York Islanders, which is one of the tightest defensive teams. While the Lightning haven’t gone head-to-head with Carey Price yet this season, I’m not sure Price has enough to keep this magical run going.
The Lightning have too many weapons, too much depth, and a world class goaltender. I think Montreal makes this a real series, but I also see a repeat champion.
Lightning in six
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