The Stanley Cup Finals begin on Monday night. The Tampa Bay Lightning are looking to repeat as champions and the Montreal Canadiens are hoping to bring home Canada’s first Stanley Cup since 1993. Coincidentally, it was the Montreal Canadiens that won back in 93 in five games over the Los Angeles Kings.
The series begins with the Bolts as a big Game 1 favorite in the -200 range at BetUS Sportsbook with a total of 5. It will be just the second set of games in the States for the Canadiens, as the NHL played that all-division schedule and kept the Canadian teams north of the border for the season.
Let’s see what could happen in Game 1, as the Canadiens find themselves in a very familiar underdog role.
As mentioned, Montreal won the last Cup for Canada almost 20 years ago. The Canadiens went 16-4 in the playoffs that year. They were 10-1 in overtime games and won the required 16 games with a +15 goal differential. This year’s Canadiens are 12-5 with a 5-1 overtime record and just a +6 goal differential. Montreal went six games with the Quebec Nordiques in the first round and then went 12-2 over the last 14 games to lift that beautiful piece of silver.
This time around, Montreal faced elimination a while ago, but has been thriving as an underdog ever since being put up against the wall with a 3-1 deficit in the series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Canadiens reeled off seven wins without trailing in a single game to set up a matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. While Montreal did trail a few times in the series, it took six games to dispose of VGK and move on.
The Canadiens were a major question mark coming into the playoffs. The Toronto squad that Montreal beat in the first round was a solid team, but most of the rest of the division was deeply flawed. Edmonton had a lot of offense, but was a poor defense. The rest of the division simply wasn’t very good.
It was expected that Montreal would have problems with a team like Vegas, but a series full of good first periods gave the Habs confidence in each and every game and they actually won four of the last five in the series to advance. If they can play with Tampa Bay at 5-v-5 like they did with Vegas or like the New York Islanders did with the Lightning, this will at least be a long series, if not one that ends in an upset.
Carey Price has been stellar in these playoffs with a .934 SV%. He’ll need to continue to be great for Montreal to have the best chance possible.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The only goaltender in the playoffs with a higher save percentage than Price is Tampa Bay netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning have gotten a .936 SV% from their backstop, who also leads the playoffs with four shutouts. His 1.99 GAA is also slightly better than Price’s 2.02 GAA. The battle in net is a great storyline in this series.
So, too, is the situation with Nikita Kucherov. The Lightning used some creative salary cap circumvention to get back Kucherov and also Steven Stamkos for the playoffs, but Kucherov was lost in Game 6 after taking a cross-check to an unpadded area from Scott Mayfield. He missed most of Game 6, but did return for Game 7, though he didn’t do much of consequence in the game.
The Lightning had problems scoring and getting their transition game going against the Islanders in the seven-game series. New York had an excellent game plan and the defensive-oriented style employed by Barry Trotz’s team really frustrated the Lightning. It was also a really tough, hard-fought series in terms of physical play.
We’ll see if the Lightning have any hangover from that series, which was undoubtedly a long one. We’ll also have to see if Montreal can win the neutral zone like the Islanders did to keep Tampa Bay from establishing the zone with ease.
The big separator for Tampa Bay in that series is that the team’s depth was very much on display. Kucherov, Stamkos, and Brayden Point, who carried a nine-game goal-scoring streak through most of the series, did get their points, but it was guys like Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, and Anthony Cirelli that really helped the Lightning advance.
Canadiens vs. Lightning Free Pick
Montreal had excellent first periods in just about every game of the series against Vegas. For whatever reason, the Golden Knights never seemed prepared. The Lightning will be prepared. They won’t overlook the Canadiens. Their depth is going to cause a lot of problems for Montreal. Vegas had some goaltending questions and vacillated back and forth in net. It is Andrei Vasilevskiy’s net for the Lightning and he’s been the best goaltender of the playoffs.
Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning