The NHL season could end on July 5. It has been a really interesting year, one that nobody hopes will happen again, as the NHL played 56 games, all within the division, but managed to navigate the uncertain COVID waters to have a regular season and a full postseason.

Rivalries were supposed to be formed by playing eight or nine games against the same team, but all we got was a watered-down regular season, dragged down further by COVID protocols and general discontentment from the players, who were stuck adjusting to a new normal.

Through it all, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been one of the best teams, but they have taken it to another level in the playoffs with the returns of Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos. The preseason favorites are in the -155 range at BetOnline Sportsbook to repeat as champions by ousting the Montreal Canadiens.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Most of us have been around long enough to know that a “lock” simply does not exist. Anything can happen. A -1000 favorite can lose. A -2000 favorite. Even higher than that. But, one thing we knew for certain was that the Tampa Bay Lightning would play better in Game 3 than they did in Game 2.

While Tampa Bay won that second game at home in the series, the Bolts were outshot 43-23 and simply didn’t play all that well. It was an outlier kind of performance for them, one that they very much corrected in Game 3. The Lightning scored two goals in the first 3:28 of the game to take a 2-0 lead and then opened up a 4-1 lead by doing the same in the second period.

The Lightning are now on the precipice of repeating as champions, something that has only been done once since 1998 and three times since 1990. The 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins did it. The Penguins also did it in 1991-92 and the Detroit Red Wings did it in 1997-98. No team has done it within the environment that the Lightning will have, so that is really something special.

The fourth win is usually the hardest to get and one that Tampa Bay still needs in order to lift that fine silver trophy. One interesting angle here is that Tampa Bay won last year’s Stanley Cup in Edmonton, a long way from the fans. A post-trophy boat parade took place in Tampa and was a celebration of the Cup win, but maybe Tampa Bay wants to win at home in front of a packed house at Amalie Arena.

This phenomenon, known as a Gentleman’s Sweep, could be in play for Game 4. The Lightning seem to be able to flip the switch and win whenever they want, so this could be a scenario in which we get a flat effort on Monday night and then a big effort on Wednesday.

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens have been in an underdog role basically all postseason long. Coming back from 3-0 against Tampa Bay is a lot different than coming back from 3-1 against Toronto, but it is not impossible. Improbable? Oh, absolutely. But not impossible. The problem for the Canadiens is that it will take the four best games that most players have ever played, especially Carey Price.

The Lightning are and were going to be the better team in this season. The great equalizer could have been Price, but after allowing just 35 goals in the first 17 games that he played this postseason, he has allowed 13 goals in just three games in this series. Andrei Vasilevskiy has outshined Price at every turn and is a big reason why this series could end in four games.

The Canadiens have gotten off to some really good first period starts, which is how you overcome the odds when you are an underdog. A bad start puts you behind the eight ball, but a good start gives you confidence and the ability to play from in front. Montreal has not had that chance in this series.

While erasing a 3-1 deficit against Toronto, the Canadiens did not trail in Games 5, 6, or 7. They never trailed in the four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets. They got off to a lot of good first period starts against Vegas and were able to play from in front. They have not had a lead in the series against Tampa Bay.

Lightning vs. Canadiens Free Pick

In watching this series, the only question for the Lightning is whether or not they want to be positioned to win this thing at home in Game 5. Even when they haven’t played well, Andrei Vasilevskiy has shined. When they have played well, they’ve looked borderline unstoppable and Carey Price has not been equal to the task.

While the sneaking suspicion is that Tampa Bay may simply want to win this at home, they are the better team, so I’ll take all the stats and what I’ve seen over a narrative.

Pick: Tampa Bay Lightning