And then there were two.
On one side, the defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. On the other, the lowest-ranked team in the playoffs and the only playoff team to record fewer than 60 points in the regular season. Les Habitants, habitual underdogs. However, if you think the Stanley Cup Final is a David versus Goliath type match-up, think again.
Since trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-1 in the opening round, the Canadiens have rattled off 11 wins in 13 games. Montreal has all the hallmarks of a championship-calibre team: Elite goaltending, stingy defence, an even stingier penalty kill, and balanced scoring throughout its line-up. The Vegas Golden Knights were the Canadiens' biggest test to this point in the playoffs and Montreal passed with flying colours.
The test that lies in front of them now is as big as it gets. Defeat the defending champs or go home empty-handed like 29 other teams in the league.
As we get set for puck drop, here’s everything you need to know heading into Game 1.
The Lightning are scoring an average of over three goals per game and well over half a goal more per game than the Canadiens' offence.
A big part of Tampa Bay’s offensive success comes from its power play, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this team isn’t deadly at 5-on-5 as well. The Lightning rank fifth these playoffs in goals per 60 minutes and second in expected goals at 5-on-5 in the playoffs. What makes Tampa Bay so dangerous is that its attack is not one-dimensional. The Lightning can play a heavy game just as well as they play a skill game.
It might surprise you to learn that Tampa Bay dumps the puck into the offensive zone at a higher rate than Montreal. The Lightning are an excellent forechecking team that uses its skill and puck recovery ability to break into the attacking end. As a result, the Lightning spend a lot of time in their opponent's end while creating quality scoring chances on net. All of these elements were on display on Brayden Point’s goal in Game 6 against the New York Islanders.
The Lightning rank fifth in offensive zone puck possession at 5-on-5, while the Canadiens rank dead last in the playoffs. Expect Tampa Bay to have a territorial advantage in this series, but if you’re a Canadiens fan, fear not.
Cycling the puck in the offensive zone is not a strength of this Montreal team and it won’t look to play that type of game against the Lightning. Rather, the Canadiens feast off transition offence. Wait for a mistake, then strike quick. Of the 15 goals the Canadiens scored in the third round against Vegas, nine came within five seconds of the puck entering the offensive zone.
Artturi Lehkonen’s overtime goal in Game 6 -- a dazzling goal off the rush -- came three seconds after the Canadiens entered the offensive zone.
The Lightning have no issue attacking off the rush either, but their approach won’t be quite the same as the Canadiens'. Tampa Bay ranks second in stretch passes in the playoffs and will look to use that tactic to hit attacking forwards with speed and for chip plays to establish its forecheck. The Canadiens rely more on quick outlet passes and turnovers to generate their rush opportunities.
As for where each team gets its offence from, the Lightning’s top-six forwards have combined to score 63.9 per cent of the team’s even strength goals. Montreal’s bottom-six has scored 56.7 per cent of its goals at even strength. The Canadiens have a more balanced attack so if they can limit the damage Tampa Bay’s top-six does against them, it will go a long way in improving their odds of winning the series. That, however, will be far easier said than done.
The Canadiens are proving a commitment to team defence can take a team far in the playoffs. The Lightning just proved it can play a lockdown style of game as well as anyone in their series win against the defensively sound New York Islanders. Tampa Bay’s Game 7 win over New York was a masterclass in team defence. Protecting a one-goal lead in the third period, the Lightning allowed just seven shots on goal with only one coming from the slot in the final frame.
Tampa Bay blocked more shots in Game 7 against the Islanders than it allowed on goal. At even strength in the playoffs, the Lightning have blocked just over a third of all shot attempts against them, which ranks first overall. The Canadiens are a good shot-blocking team as well, blocking just over 31 per cent of shot attempts against which ranks fifth in the playoffs.
The Canadiens' 2.05 expected goals-against average is slightly lower than the Lightning's 2.15 at 5-on-5. Montreal has done a good job of defending its blue line against oncoming attacks in the playoffs.
The Canadiens are one of only five playoff teams to have denied over half of all zone entry attempts against them. Conversely, the Lightning have only gained the offensive zone with possession on 52 per cent of their entries, which is the second-worst conversion rate in the playoffs. Forcing turnovers at the defensive blue line will feed directly into Montreal’s elite counter-attack game.
An area of concern for the Canadiens has been how they defend face-off losses in their defensive zone. Vegas scored five of its 13 goals in the series against Montreal directly off face-off wins in the offensive zone.
In the playoffs, the Canadiens have allowed a shot on goal following 31 per cent of their lost defensive zone draws -- dead last in the league. Montreal has allowed a scoring chance on 23 per cent of those face-off losses -- also dead last. The Canadiens defensive zone coverage when they lose a draw in their end will need to be better than it’s been through three rounds of the playoffs.
As for match-ups, Phillip Danault is about to face his toughest test yet. Danault, who has finished top-10 in Selke voting each of the past three years, has done a phenomenal job shutting down the opposition's biggest offensive threats throughout this run. He has been on the ice for one goal against in just over 125 minutes at 5-on-5 against Auston Matthews, Blake Wheeler, and Mark Stone. Stone didn’t have a point in six games against the Canadiens in the third round.
Danault and linemates Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen will see a lot of Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov in this series, especially at home. Kucherov leads all players in playoff scoring with 27 points and Point has a league-leading 14 goals. Point has scored 12 of his goals from the slot and gets open in contested areas better than anyone in the game right now.
As good a shutdown line as Danault, Gallagher, and Lehkonen have been, they have not faced a line as explosive as Point’s yet in the playoffs. The closest comparison would be Matthews, Mitch Marner, and Zach Hyman. And while Danault’s line played that trio close in their head-to-head minutes in terms of goals scored, Matthews’ line had a distinct advantage in scoring chances.
An unstoppable force is about to meet an immovable object.
The unstoppable force is the Tampa Bay Lightning power play. The Bolts are 20-for-53 with the man advantage in the playoffs, good for 37.7 per cent. Only one team, minimum of 30 attempts, has posted a better playoff power play percentage in NHL history: the 1981 New York Islanders whose 37.8 per cent power play helped them to a Stanley Cup win. What we are seeing from the Lightning power play in these playoffs is historic.
The immovable object is the Montreal Canadiens penalty kill. Only two penalty kills in league history, minimum of 30 attempts, have been as successful as the Canadiens’ in these playoffs. Montreal’s PK is 43-for-46, good for 93.5 per cent. Only the 2004 Detroit Red Wings and 2019 Dallas Stars were better.
When it comes to net results, no playoff penalty kill has ever been better than the Canadiens' PK. While Montreal has allowed three goals while shorthanded, it has scored four times on the PK. No team, minimum 30 times shorthanded, has ever finished the playoffs with a net positive penalty kill. The Canadiens have gone 13 straight playoff games without allowing a power play goal against -- an NHL record. Their penalty kill is a perfect 30-for-30 in that time.
A historic power play versus a historic penalty kill. So, who has the edge?
The underlying numbers favour the power play. Montreal ranks eighth in shorthanded expected goals against in the playoffs and Carey Price has been a major reason for the team’s penalty kill success. Tampa Bay’s power play ranks fifth in expected goals. While the Lightning’s power play has exceeded expectations, their underlying numbers are closer to their results than the Canadiens' penalty kill is.
If Montreal gets into penalty trouble, this is likely one power play that will be too much to shut down. However, the same can be said for Tampa Bay. Montreal has converted on a respectable 20.9 per cent of its power play opportunities and the Lightning's penalty kill, while fourth overall these playoffs at 83 per cent, has the worst expected goals against rate of any playoff team. No team has relied on goaltending on the PK more than the Lightning -- though in fairness, the goalie is part of the penalty kill.
However, the Lightning PK has not shown it can limit quality chances effectively and if Andrei Vasilevskiy slips at all, the penalty kill could prove to be a weakness for Tampa Bay.
Welcome to the best Stanley Cup Final goaltending battle in twenty years. Not since Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche collided with Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils in 2001 have goalies of this calibre faced off in the final round of the playoffs. Carey Price has recaptured the level of play he showed when he was named league MVP in 2015. Andrei Vasilevskiy has earned the title of ‘best goalie in the NHL’ with his consistent, elite play over the past few seasons. Both goalies are on top of their game heading into the Final, leading all playoff goalies in the following key performance areas.
Here’s some context on just how dialled in these two are on scoring chances from the slot. The league average save percentage in the playoffs on slot shots is .846. Both Price and Vasilevskiy are well over .880.
The reality is neither goalie has a weakness. If they did, opposing teams would have zeroed in on it already. That said, there are a couple of areas where each has posted below-average save percentages in the playoffs.
Price has a .936 save percentage on shots to his low blocker side. The league average in the playoffs is .959. In total, Price has allowed 20 per cent of his goals against to this area of the net, more than double the playoff average of 9.4 per cent. However, of the seven goals that have beat Price in this location, only one was a clean shot and it was from the point through traffic. The rest were far post, tap-ins, or rebounds. Hardly an identifiable weakness despite the anomalous number of goals that have beat him in this area.
With Vasilevskiy, an area to watch is five-hole. Vasilevskiy allowed a mere seven goals in this location during the regular season, far better than average. However, he has allowed six goals against to the five-hole in the playoffs. His save percentage on five-hole shots sits at .882, below the playoff average of .902 and well below Price’s five-hole save percentage of .946.
Shooters have had success shooting between the legs on Vasilevskiy in the playoffs, particularly in one-on-one situations.
Again, due to the small sample of playoff hockey, it would be premature to call this a weakness. Especially, considering how few goals beat Vasilevskiy in this area during the regular season. But it's something to think about if a Canadiens skater finds himself on a breakaway against Vasilevskiy.
Rumour has it when Cole Caufield isn’t going bar down high glove, he likes to shoot five-hole.
Despite the Canadiens' heavy underdog status, this should be a competitive series. It’s hard to imagine it won’t be considering the goaltending match-up. The Tampa Bay Lightning will look to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, moving one step closer to creating a dynasty. The Montreal Canadiens are chasing an NHL record 25th Stanley Cup title as they look to bring it north of the border for the first time since 1993.
Whether you’re a Lightning fan, a Canadiens fan or just a hockey fan in general, enjoy the Stanley Cup Final. There’s nothing quite like it in sport.