Normally around this time of year we'd be consumed with draft talk and trade speculation with free agency on the horizon. This year it's even better: we have a Stanley Cup Final still to look forward to.
Beginning with Game 1 in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are back for the second year in a row and eyeing a defence of their title won in an Edmonton bubble last September. Now they have a chance to win in front of their home fans, with 14,800 allowed in Amalie Arena last round.
The series will shift in Game 3 to la belle province, the first time in 28 years the all-time winningest NHL franchise will host a Stanley Cup Final game. It's the longest the Montreal Canadiens have been between finals appearances in their history and their fans are starting to get 1993 vibes through this underdog run.
Everything is on the line now with the Lightning and Canadiens just four wins away from glory. Here's how the teams match up.
PLAYOFF TEAM STATS
Montreal: 2.53 GF/G, 2.18 GA/G, 20.9 PP%, 93.5 PK%
Tampa Bay: 3.22 GF/G, 2.06 GA/G, 37.7 PP%, 83.0 PK%
PLAYOFF ADVANCED STATS
(all numbers 5-on-5, via Natural Stat Trick)
Montreal: 47.83 CF%, 49.57 xGF%, 48.21 GF%, 52.63 HDCF%
Tampa Bay: 48.29 CF%, 49.33 xGF%, 55.93 GF%, 54.21 HDCF%
Montreal: Tyler Toffoli (5-9-14), Nick Suzuki (5-8-13), Cole Caufield (4-5-9)
Tampa Bay: Nikita Kucherov (5-22-27), Brayden Point (14-6-20), Alex Killorn (8-9-17)
Canada has its first Stanley Cup finalist in a decade as the Montreal Canadiens claimed the Clarence Campbell Bowl for the first time in team history. What a strange year.
But unlike the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks that last represented the north in the final, this year's Montreal Canadiens are the plucky underdogs, the 16th-ranked playoff team that turned around a five-game losing streak at the end of the regular season and a 3-1 first-round series deficit to be here.
The Canadiens have drawn comparisons to other teams that went on unexpected runs, like the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, a Corsi-monster before it was cool and a low-scoring team that got by on relentless defence and excellent goaltending. These Habs, by the way, were second in Corsi this regular season, 17th in goals per game and, yes, Carey Price has a .934 save percentage and 2.02 GAA in the playoffs. It's not quite the Kings, but you get the idea.
They're also drawing some comparisons to the 1993 Canadiens, the last Cup champion from Canada. The soft end to the regular season. The balanced scoring. The first-round rally and second-round sweep. The elite, winking goalies. It might be destiny.
— John Bartlett (@BartsBytes) June 15, 2021
The Canadiens are going to experience a different foe in the final than any of their historical comparisons, though. The Lightning are the defending champs, a near-perfect mix of everything you could want from quickness and puck skills to patience and brawn. The Lightning have a chance to be the first repeat winners since the 2016 and 2017 Penguins.
Where Montreal has morphed into something much different than they were when trailing 3-1 in their opening-round series, the Lightning are as tough as ever. Top five in goals, goals against, power play and penalty kill percentage this regular season, they can beat you with any game. Montreal has so far found success in neutralizing the opposition's key forward scorers and the Lightning will be the ultimate test of that. Andrei Vasilevskiy is more than capable of going save for save with Price, while Tampa's back end is just as sizeable and tough around the net as Montreal's.
The team of destiny seeking to break Canada's Cup curse, or the proven best in the game today that's trying to make its own mark on history -- who are you taking?
The big question for each team
Montreal: Can they again erase the opposition's stars?
Price is Montreal's top Conn Smythe contender coming into the final, but Phillip Danault has earned a lot of shine for his role in frustrating the likes of Auston Matthews, Blake Wheeler and Mark Stone. He'll again be a central figure in this series and will undoubtedly make the job harder for any line Tampa throws at him.
But now the challenge may run even deeper than it has in the previous three rounds. Every step of the way Montreal has faced an opponent that's lost a key centre, first John Tavares, then Mark Scheifele and finally Chandler Stephenson. Tampa will start with centres Brayden Point, Anthony Cirelli, Yanni Gourde and Tyler Johnson all relatively healthy.
Point scored a goal in nine straight games until being kept off the board in Game 7 by the Islanders, one shy of tying Reggie Leach's all-time record. Their wingers are pretty OK, too, with Nikita Kucherov the top-scoring player in the playoffs and Steven Stamkos and Alex Killorn tied for third. There is some question how healthy or able Kucherov and Stamkos are -- the latter of whom scored in just two of seven games against New York.
And the Montreal PK that hasn't allowed a goal since Game 4 against Toronto? Now it meets one of the league's deadliest power plays that is converting on 37.7 per cent of its opportunities in the post-season.
Tampa: Will they try and disturb Price in the crease?
The Golden Knights got far too complacent with taking outside shots against Montreal and lost the high danger shot battle, while only getting two goals all series from its top-six forwards. Three of their top five shooters in the series were defencemen, and an awful lot of those went unscreened. Perhaps that's a credit to the Habs' presence of sizeable defencemen, but Vegas could have ventured to do more.
Now that job falls to the likes of Pat Maroon, Barclay Goodrow, Blake Coleman and the like to just make it harder on Price to see and work with anything coming from the outside. That may be easier said than done, but it's a necessity because a comfortable Price is one who could single-handedly steal a series.
The other way to make life harder on Montreal's goalie is to just not settle for as many point shots as Vegas did, which has been a tall order against a Habs team that's proven adept at clogging central ice. The Lightning are the best, most creative and electric offence the league knows today and remember, they've triumphed over teams who find success very similarly to the way Montreal does, beating the Islanders two years in a row and downing the D-heavy Stars in last year's Cup final.
Brendan Gallagher, Montreal: It's gotta start coming, doesn't it? Gallagher is the sort of player built to rise to these moments. In Round 3 against Vegas he was buzzing, recording a team-high 17 shots and not scoring once. He actually hasn't scored a goal since Game 1 of the Winnipeg series, but leads Montreal forwards in shots, high danger shots and expected goal for percentage, per Natural Stat Trick.
Playing next to Danault, Gallagher has executed a key shutdown role and been on the ice for only three 5-on-5 goals against all playoffs. It will be crucial for this line to keep finding success on that side of the puck, but if the opportunities Gallagher is getting on offence start turning to goals it could make all the difference.
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay: Can he break away from what's happened to other top scorers the Canadiens have faced? Even against the tight-checking Islanders, Point scored six goals. Last year against New York in the Eastern Conference final he scored three times in four games, and in the final against Dallas, he added five in six games.
But every team the Canadiens have left in their wake has been pointing fingers at their top, reliable scorers who vanished. Point rides with Kucherov on his wing, who's averaging 1.5 points per game and picked up nine assists against the Islanders. Will that duo be the one to break Montreal's run?