For the third time in eight years, the Canadiens and Lightning will meet in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But the stakes have never been higher than they are this year. So which Atlantic Division club is taking home the Stanley Cup in 2021? (Chris O’Meara, AP)

Once again, the Stanley Cup Playoffs have not disappointed us. Three rounds of exciting physicality, skill, and terrible officiating have once again captivated hockey fans across the hockey world. Whether your team didn’t make it, was knocked out early, is still reeling from elimination, or is lucky enough to be one of the two left standing, it’s been an incredible sight, just as it is every single year. After all, that’s why we keep coming back. And why we’re so excited for the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

Over the last month and a half, a field of sixteen promising teams has been gradually whittled down. Through a brutal process of elimination, best-of-seven style, fourteen teams have been eliminated. One more needs to go before we crown a champion. Some of the eliminated were just happy to be here. Others had legitimate designs to reach the sport’s biggest stage, yet they came up short due to factors in and out of their control. After all, that’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so great. The favorites are never safe, the underdogs are always lurking, and the battle between two teams, regardless of their identity, often produces timeless moments. We’ve seen plenty of them so far in these playoffs, and this year’s Final is sure to produce plenty more.

Speaking of favorites and underdogs, we have one of each in this year’s Final. A Tampa Bay Lightning core defined by frustration finally found championship bliss, out of all places, in a bubble in Edmonton during a pandemic last fall. Now, less than nine months later, they find themselves back under the bright lights. Four wins separate them from becoming just the second repeat champion of the salary cap era. And with almost every single member of last year’s club returning for the encore, they have to feel pretty good about their chances. It’s no surprise to see them back here.

What is a surprise is their opponent: the Montréal Canadiens. Few expected the Canadiens, who won just 24 out of 56 regular-season contests and finished 18th in the regular season, to even reach round two, let alone be one of the last two left standing. Then again, few expected the Canadiens to make any noise in last year’s bubble. It seemed like a safe bet seeing as they finished 24th in the league and wouldn’t have sniffed the playoffs under normal circumstances.

But they took advantage of last year’s opportunity. In doing so, Montréal gained short-term respect and long-term experience. That, along with a healthy dose of offseason acquisitions and youth, led them to their first Final appearance since 1993. Crazy enough, that is also the last time any Canadian team captured the Cup. It’s a classic David vs. Goliath showdown. And the Habs bringing a heck of a slingshot to slow down a juggernaut of a Tampa Bay squad to claim hockey’s ultimate prize: Lord Stanley’s Cup.

#4 Montréal Canadiens (24-21-11) vs. #3 Tampa Bay Lightning (36-17-3)

Recent Meetings: The NHL’s realigned divisions gave us the chance for what would usually be an impossible Stanley Cup Final matchup. And that’s exactly what we have here. Montréal and Tampa Bay have been in the same division ever since the NHL’s last division realignment in 2013-14. The Habs and Bolts met in the playoffs in each of the first two years of that new format. Each time, the lower seed won. Montréal swept the Lightning right out of the first round in 2014. But the Lightning secured revenge with a six-game victory in the second round of 2015.

The Last Time Here: It’s certainly been a while for the Canadiens. If you skimmed over the intro, Montréal hasn’t reached the Stanley Cup Final since 1993. They took out Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in five games to capture their league-best 24th Stanley Cup. This is becoming an old-hat for the Lightning, who are making their third Finals trip since 2015. Tampa Bay lost that series in six to Chicago. But they secured the club’s second Cup ever and first since 2004 with a six-game triumph over the Dallas Stars.

The Road So Far: The Lightning have had one of the hardest roads to a Stanley Cup Final in recent memory. They didn’t have home ice in either of the first two rounds. And their opponents were no pushovers, matching up with the energetic offenses of Florida and Carolina, respectively. Tampa Bay’s experience won out over the Panthers, knocking their three-headed goalie monster out in six. They shut down Carolina’s offense and lit up their “power kill” in a five-game victory. And in a third-round rematch with the Islanders, the Lightning recovered from a tantalizing miss at the end of Game 4 and a blown lead/OT loss in Game 6. It went down to the wire, but Tampa took Game 7 by a 1-0 tally on their home ice.

Anyone who was betting on a hunch the Habs (and there weren’t many) would go this far probably gave up hope when the team fell behind 3-1 to Toronto in the first round. But ever since then, the Canadiens have looked like a different team; seven straight wins, eleven victories in their last thirteen. Despite multi-goal collapses in Games 5 and 6, the Habs recovered to beat the Maple Leafs both times. Then they absolutely sucked the life out of the Leafs in a convincing Game 7 victory.

Montréal absolutely steamrolled the Jets in a second-round mismatch, dominating them across the board en route to a sweep. Most figured their run would come to an end against powerful Vegas in Round 3. But Montréal didn’t just squeak by Vegas; they ran the show, taking advantage of mistakes but also creating some themselves. Most importantly, they absolutely shut down Vegas’ vaunted forward core while finding just enough ways to score. The result? A six-game upset that has them on the Stanley Cup’s doorstep.

One final note on the Habs’ path here, one I promise this isn’t meant to diminish their success. Improbably, they’ve yet to face a team with each of their top two centers. John Tavares suffered a scary injury in a freak accident early in Game 1 of the first round. Mark Scheifele was suspended for a predatory hit on Jake Evans in Game 1 of the second round. And Vegas’ Chandler Stephenson missed three of six Round 3 games due to injury.

Every team deals with injuries or absences, often to key players, during the playoffs. And the Canadiens are certainly no exception. They’re without Evans (concussion), Tomas Tatar (undisclosed), Jonathan Drouin (personal leave of absence), and lost Jeff Petry for a few games earlier in the playoffs (upper-body injury). But it’s a weird coincidence that while not affecting Tampa (yet) is kind of continuing with star forward Nikita Kucherov coming in at way less than 100%. To win the Cup, you need to be good and lucky; Montréal has been both so far. Just like Tampa Bay was last year, St. Louis the year before that, and so on.

Tampa Bay Wins Because: They’ve done it before. They can do it again. Nineteen of the twenty players to take the ice for the Lightning in these playoffs won the Cup last year. The only exceptions are rookie Ross Colton and deadline pickup David Savard. There’s something to be said about not just knowing what it takes to win, but the difference between that and what results in coming up short. After several years of playoff agony that entrenched the latter in their minds, the Lightning learned the formula to discover the former in the bubble and road it to the franchise’s second championship in an objectively exciting fashion (as long as your favorite team wasn’t standing in their way).

There are two key areas where the Lightning seems to set themselves apart from Montréal: high-end forwards and defensive depth. Simply put, the Canadiens’ best players don’t come close to matching the level of Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point. That’s even accounting for the fact that the former didn’t look his usual self in Game 7 after leaving Game 6 two minutes in after being cross-checked by New York’s Scott Mayfield. But he and Point are both having incredible playoff runs, just like they did last year. Danault will do his best to shut these two and linemate Ondrej Palat down. Considering their strong numbers (52.92% Corsi, 55.22% xG, 9-7 5v5 goal differential). And oh yeah, they’ve got Steven Stamkos (T-3rd in playoff scoring with Alex Killorn) on their second line. Not too shabby.

And while Montréal’s third pair of Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson will hardly see the light of day in this series (though Gustafsson should continue to receive consistent PP usage), the Bolts should be able to rotate their three pairs fairly evenly. Of course, they’ll still lean heavily on Victor Hedman (which they maybe shouldn’t do, seeing as Hedman is definitely playing hurt as his average underlying numbers — 49.99% Corsi, 50.58% xG, 13-13 5v5 goals differential — suggest). But Tampa’s third pair of Savard and Mikhail Sergachev (a former Montréal 1st round pick) is more dependable than most team’s second pairs. And the Lightning’s second pair of shot-blocking machine Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak has the team’s best 5v5 results, sporting an 11-5 goal differential.

Tampa Bay also sports a well-known shutdown line of their own in Barclay Goodrow, Yanni Gourde, and Blake Coleman. Back when the Lightning acquired Coleman and Goodrow at the 2020 deadline for roughly three first-round picks, the only way for it to be worth it was to get a ring with them. Well, it turns out they might get two. And once again, they’re living up to the billing, allowing just 1.92 Expected Goals/per 60 and sporting a positive 5v5 goal differential (3-2). Their fourth line of Pat Maroon, Colton, and 2015 playoff hero Tyler Johnson is also very effective and had a tremendous Game 7 against the Islanders, by my eyes. Maroon is going for his third straight Cup, Johnson his second, and Colton is looking for number one. This once again appears to be a stacked Lightning team operating at peak powers at just the right time.

But are they doing that? Perhaps not. By the numbers, Tampa Bay has been rather average at 5-on-5, posting a 50.05% Corsi (9th in the playoffs) and 50.73% Expected Goals (8th). Those marks are… good but nowhere near their regular-season dominance (53.18% Corsi, 54.04% xG – 7th in both categories). Their actual goals for percentage at 5-on-5 is up by over two percent. And the team certainly hasn’t looked like they’ve taken a step back for most of what I’ve seen of their run (decent chunk of the Florida series, most of the Carolina and Islanders ones).

This is probably a case of public models underrating their performance a bit. And for what it’s worth, Montréal has also dropped from elite regular season possession team to middle of the playoff pack. The good news for Tampa Bay is that if their 5-on-5 results do suddenly dip, their elite power play is more than capable of picking up the slack. During Round 3, the Lightning had more power-play goals (5) than the Golden Knights, Canadiens, and Islanders combined (4). Doing that against an Islanders penalty kill that ranked 6th in the regular season (albeit one that was struggling mightily coming into that series) is pretty impressive stuff. Although the Stanley Cup Final usually sees the fewest penalties of any series, limiting that advantage just a bit.

Montréal Wins Because: They just keep getting better, and they’ve shown they can shock the world before. Really, it feels like this run is an extension of their impressive work in the bubble last summer. Instead of laying over to what seemed like a vastly superior competition, Montréal quietly put on a clinic against the best of the Keystone state. It started with a shocking yet convincing upset of the Penguins in the qualifier round. And while they fell to the Flyers in Round 1, it wasn’t due to a lack of effort or performance. Montréal more than skated with Philadelphia throughout the series, outscoring them 13-11 over the six-game series and never allowing more than three goals in a contest.

Now that bad luck and a white-hot goalie aren’t slowing them down (or at least haven’t been over the first three rounds), Montréal’s ceiling is being unveiled to the hockey world. Spoiler alert: it’s pretty high. If there’s one thing I (and I think most of the hockey world) underestimated, it’s their ability to shut down opponents. And by shut down, I don’t mean relying on Carey Price to carry them here kicking and screaming. Yes, Price has been excellent in the playoffs so far (more on him below). But the team in front of him is also firing at all cylinders.

There may not be a more thankless job in hockey than shutdown center. And arguably no player has had a bigger coming-out party in these playoffs than Philip Danault. Over the first three rounds, he has gone from a trendy darkhorse Selke pick to a world-class shutdown center at the forefront of a Stanley Cup finalist. Mark Stone’s line was absolutely impressive in completely controlling play against Colorado’s dominant top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon, and Mikko Rantanen. But Danault and friends gave them a taste of their own medicine, completely neutralizing Vegas’ best players. Holding Stone, Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, Reilly Smith, Chandler Stephenson, and their former captain Pacioretty to just two goals in six games is impressive, to say the least.

In the last five games of their series, Montréal held Vegas to 2, 1, 2, 1, and 1 goal(s), respectively. The difference between those and Game 1, when Vegas lit the lamp four times in a convincing win? The presence of Jeff Petry. Shea Weber gets all the name recognition and national attention, but Petry’s pair with Joel Edmundson has easily been the Habs’ best in the playoffs (50.07% Corsi, 54.57% xG). It makes sense given Petry’s superior offensive abilities; Weber has that electric shot, but Petry’s puck-moving abilities are much more important in the overall flow of a game.

The Canadiens lack true superstar talent upfront like the Lightning. But they’ve been receiving production from up and down their lineup. Unfortunately, that makes Sunday’s news that forward Joel Armia is in COVID protocol, leaving his status in doubt for the Final, a tough pill to swallow (though it’s also worth noting Montréal head coach Dominque Ducharme is set to return from COVID protocol for Game 3). The Artturi Lehkonen-Danault-Brendan Gallagher has been absolutely incredible in these playoffs, rocking an incredible 54.75% Corsi, 52.38% xG, and 3-0 5v5 goals differential, all while going up against other team’s top competition.

Danault is also a key part of a Montréal PK that has scored more goals (4) than they’ve allowed (3) and was perfect against Vegas in Round 3 (unfortunately, so is Armia, who has 2 shorties in these playoffs). Shutting down Tampa’s power-play, which is operating at an unbelievable 37.7% rate, is something no one has been able to do so far and is crucial for the Habs’ road to victory.

Behind those three lay Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Cole Caufield. They’re a dynamic trio that Montréal needs to be off the charts in the Final. They’ve been strong in the playoffs so far, sporting a 55.35% xG together. They rank 1, 2, and T-3 in team scoring, respectively, with Caufield coming off a dynamite 4-goal series against Vegas. This is easily Montréal’s most skilled forward line. And therefore it’s their best shot at generating offense and goals against Tampa’s stingy defense and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Veterans Corey Perry, Eric Staal (tied with Caufield at 9 points), and Paul Byron have chipped in some big goals throughout the playoffs; we’ll see if they can keep it up on hockey’s biggest stage. The former two already have Cup rings in 2007 and 2006, respectively.

Conn Smythe Watch: It’s easiest to start with the Canadiens because there’s really only one guy for the job: Carey Price. That’s not because Price has dragged the Habs kicking and screaming to this point, as many figured he would have to do Montréal to reach a Final three or four years ago. But Price has been sensational, no doubt about it. An incredible .934 save percentage and 8.3 goals saved above average speak for themselves. Besides, Montréal has mostly gotten here on offense by committee. No player has more than five goals, and only Tyler Toffoli and Nick Suzuki have even cleared double-digit points. Maybe a monster Final from Shea Weber, averaging 25:38 a game, puts him in the running. But if the Canadiens win, this is Price’s award to lose.

As for the Lightning, look no further than their two best forwards: Kucherov and Point. The former leads the playoffs in scoring by a whopping seven-point margin. The latter scored a goal in nine consecutive playoff games, one short of tying the NHL record. His fourteen goals are nearly as many as the next two players combined (Nathan MacKinnon, Brad Marchand, and Alex Killorn all have 8). Vasilevskiy has also been stellar, posting a playoff-leading .936 save percentage and pitching a shutout in each of Tampa’s three series-clinching wins. Any of the three are incredibly deserving, but I lean towards Point. At the end of the day, goals are what matter most. And for Point to go on such an incredible run as form cements him for me to this point. Of course, the Final could shift the balance in any of these three’s favor.

Player to Watch:

MTL – Jesperi Kotkaniemi: As mentioned above, the Canadiens have managed to avoid a team’s top two centers for the vast majority of their playoff run to this point. That isn’t the case coming into this series, however. Anthony Cirelli is leading a dominant second-line, providing an excellent two-way presence to the electric Steven Stamkos and gritty Killorn. The former two of which are tied for third in the entire playoffs with 17 points. With the Danault line more than having their hands full with Brayden Point’s line, someone will need to step up big-time to shut down Tampa Bay’s literal second wave.

That’s where Montréal is hoping Kotkaniemi steps in. Kotkaniemi put up great defense results as a rookie right out of the draft in 2018-19. So we know he’s at least capable of handling a shutdown role. However, despite a couple of key moments, namely his Game 6 OT winner against Toronto, Kotkaniemi has struggled after starting these playoffs as a healthy scratch. He’s been gashed to the tune of an ugly 43.42% Expected Goals. That’s translated to being outscored 10-8 at 5-on-5. Six points certainly aren’t enough offense to make up for that. If Kotkaniemi and line-mates Paul Byron and Josh Anderson (who had a big series against Vegas) can step up, the Canadiens can comfortably keep Danault’s line and potentially nullify another top-notch offense. But if the reality of Kotkaniemi’s first Finals trip is a harsh one, it could be curtains for Montréal.

TB – Steven Stamkos: While Tampa Bay’s roster is largely the same as last year’s run, one important cog that was hardly present in the 2020 Final is chomping at the bit for this year’s Final. You probably remember Stamkos’ story from the bubble, but a brief refresher. Stamkos, the whipping boy for Tampa’s playoff failures of years past, was ruled out for the start of the 2020 playoffs with an injury. A few games gradually turned into a round, then two, then three. Finally, Stamkos returned to the Lightning lineup for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. He managed to play just 2:47 of ice-time before going down for good. But Stamkos managed to score a goal during that ice-time, lifting the Lightning on and off the ice before lifting the Stanley Cup, injury and all.

This year, Stamkos has been front and center (even though he’s playing the wing) in Tampa Bay’s run. His 17 points are tied for third in the playoffs (and also third on the team because Tampa Bay is unfairly amazing). Stamkos has been producing at a top-notch level on both the power-play and at even strength. He’s rocking an impressive expected goal rate of nearly 57%. And he’s tied for second on the team in power-play goals and points. He’s no longer in the conversation for best player in the world. But Stamkos will be more than satisfied with a second ring to show for his troubles. Doing so cements his status as an all-time Lightning legend.

The Pick: Just like I said in my Montréal-Vegas preview, the Canadiens certainly aren’t going to lay down and die. They’ve worked too hard and are simply too good; any team that reaches the Stanley Cup Final is. And after upsetting Vegas, their biggest challenge yet, there’s a certain luster to the Habs I rarely get from a team. This isn’t an underdog lucking into being here or being bailed out by officiating or goaltending; this is an underdog learning what it takes to be a top-dog, not just beating opponents but brutally schooling them. Montréal has left the Maple Leafs, Jets, and Golden Knights reeling in a way that most teams eliminated from the playoffs aren’t. It’s something I don’t think Tampa did to the Panthers or Hurricanes, for the record.

But the Canadiens are facing off against the top-dog in Tampa Bay here. Not just a team that thinks it’s ready to win; a team that knows it because they’ve already done it and are hungry to do it again. There’s been no complacency in Tampa’s run this year. Brayden Point’s game-winning goal in the final 90 seconds of their first playoff game against Florida sent that message loud and clear. And it’s been forwarded across the league countless times over the last six weeks.

The Lightning know the same high-stakes failures of teams like Vegas, but they also already know how to overcome them. It’s an advantage that sets them apart from almost every single team in the league, including Montréal. Combine that with an incredibly skilled, diverse, and deep roster, and it’s nearly impossible to pick against the Lightning. So for the second straight year, I’m not going to. Tampa Bay in 6.

Oddly Specific Prediction:  This is an idea I also borrow from one of the best hockey writers, The Athletic’s Sean McIndoe (aka Down Goes Brown). The idea is very self-explanatory: make a very specific and semi-random prediction for each series.

Don’t forget to check out Emma Brown’s post-mortem on the New York Islanders.

One incredible trivia nugget that you may not remember: the last time the Canadiens and Lightning met in the playoffs (2015) is actually a huge reason why we have video replay. Tampa Bay’s OT winner in double OT of Game 1 shouldn’t have counted due to offsides. But that wasn’t reviewable at the time, so the Lightning took the game, and eventually, the series. Five months later, offsides became reviewable as part of the new coach’s challenge mechanic. History always seems to have a way of repeating itself at the most inopportune time. So in the clinching game of the series, Montréal will have a goal called back by the same review process that coulda, woulda, shoulda saved them six years ago.

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All advanced stats are 5-on-5, Score and Venue Adjusted, unless otherwise stated and are via Natural Stat Trick