2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs
The Montréal Canadiens and Vegas Golden Knights are set to battle for the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl and a trip to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

Ever since they arrived in the NHL back in way before I was born like every other team 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights have been steamrolling towards the Stanley Cup. Each of the four iterations of the NHL’s youngest franchise (soon to be second youngest) has made the playoffs. This year’s group is the third to reach the third round of the playoffs, including the inaugural team that reached the Stanley Cup Final. After knocking off the pesky Wild and potent Avalanche in the first two rounds, Vegas is hoping the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs is their breakthrough moment. After all, they’ve been waiting *oh so long* for just that.

You could make the argument that their third-round opponent, the Montréal Canadiens, is their easiest yet. After all, Colorado finished 1st in the NHL, and Minnesota was 9th. The Habs, on the other hand, placed 18th and were the only team that reached the playoffs despite losing more than they won. Yet, it’s the Canadiens that have won seven straight games. They overcame a 3-1 series deficit against Toronto and ran over the Jets in the first two rounds. Montréal is back in the final four for the first time since 2014. And they don’t figure to be a pushover, even against a Cup contender like Vegas. The Golden Knights are still the favorites here, but knocking off the hungry Habs will take their best effort yet.

#2 Vegas Golden Knights vs. #4 Montréal Canadiens

Recent Meetings: Like with Winnipeg, Montréal is in a different conference than Winnipeg during normal times. So this column is a goose egg.

The Last Time Here: Vegas split the first two games of the 2020 Western Conference Final with Dallas. But the Stars took each of the next three, including OT wins in Games 3 and 5. Montréal hasn’t gone this far since 2014; they lost Carey Price to injury in Game 1 and lost the series in six to the New York Rangers. Price and Brendan Gallagher are the only Canadiens still with the team since that series. Also on Montréal’s roster in the 2014 ECF? None other than Vegas’ top sniper Max Pacioretty, Montréal’s former captain.

The Road Here: Both of these teams have faced elimination already in the Stanley Cup Playoffs; Vegas once, Montréal thrice.

Vegas Wins Because: They’re the best team left, and that’s not just going off their regular-season record. Although if you’re going by that, Vegas is also still the best; they finished tied for first in the NHL with Colorado, and they’ll happily trade losing the President’s Trophy via tie-breaker with winning a series over the Avs. And it’s not like Vegas danced through the raindrops to get here; after a 7-1 butt-kicking in Game 1, the Golden Knights thoroughly dominated the next three games. Vegas posted a 60.95% Corsi and 71.88% xG in the middle three games of the series. Putting up those numbers against a bottom-feeder would be impressive; to do it against a historically dominant possession team like Colorado in the second round of the playoffs is absolutely incredible.

Colorado recovered from a possession standpoint in Games 5 and 6. But Vegas has their swagger back, and they’re such a difficult team to beat when that’s the case. Hence why a 2-0 Avalanche third-period lead in Game 5 disappeared in the blink of an eye. And why Colorado’s 1-0 lead in the first minute of Game 6 didn’t live to see the second minute of the game. It’s hard to believe this is the same Vegas team that trailed 2-1 with six minutes left in Game 3, on the verge of going down 3-0 in the series. Now, they’re arguably the hottest team in hockey and one of only four left standing.

The biggest reason Vegas flipped the switch in this series is how well Mark Stone’s line completely shut down Colorado’s vaunted top-line of Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen, and Hart finalist Nathan MacKinnon. In fact, Stone could be the first winger to win the Selke as the league’s best defensive forward since Jeri Lehtinen in 2000. It’s been great seeing him and underrated center Chandler Stephenson reunited with Max Pacioretty. Pacioretty missed the first six games of the Minnesota series with an injury. Yet he’s tied with Stone and Jonathan Marchessault for second on the team in scoring. Expect him to be hungry to prove all of his doubters in Montréal wrong.

While Vegas’ top six receives a ton of attention, their forward depth has been performing exceptionally all playoffs. Their top four forwards in Corsi are William Carrier, Alex Tuch, Patrick Brown, and Nicolas Roy. By xG, it’s Tuch, Roy, Carrier, and William Karlsson, with Brown just 0.13% behind Wild Bill. Tuch and Mattias Janmark (who scored just 1 regular season goal after coming over at the deadline) are tied for sixth on the team with seven points in the playoffs. Carrier and Keegan Kolesar, another depth forward, each scored in the series-clinching win over Colorado. Just like in 2018, Vegas is a deadly four-line machine that bulldozers opponents with an aggressive attack and relentless forecheck. From an entertainment and success standpoint, it’s hockey at its finest.

Vegas didn’t have Brayden McNabb available for most of their first-round series, but he’s been a stabilizing force alongside Shea Theodore ever since returning from the COVID list in Game 4 (54.63% Corsi, 56.91% xG). That’s much better than the top pair of Alec Martinez and Alex Pietrangelo (46.38% Corsi, 51.15% xG). However, they’re often tasked with shutting down the opposition’s top forwards and do have a 4-3 actual goals differential together. Their third pair of youngsters in Zach Whitecloud and Nicolas Hague has done well, albeit in sheltered minutes. Hague has sat the last two games; if he comes in, it’ll likely be for Nick Holden, who opened the scoring for Vegas in Game 6.

Last but not least, Marc-Andre Fleury’s stellar play is a huge reason the Golden Knights are back on this stage. Remember, Robin Lehner started that embarrassment of a Game 1 to give Fleury some rest after that nail-biting first-round series. The Vezina finalist has stopped *only* 1.4 goals above expected so far in these playoffs, posting a strong .923 save percentage. Those numbers probably undersell how good he’s been in these playoffs. He’s exorcising the playoff demons that haunted him in Pittsburgh during the early 2010s and aging like fine wine at 36 years young.

Montréal Wins Because: They’re built for the playoffs, and it’s showing throughout this already impressive run. It’s cliché, but it’s true; Montréal is a hard-nosed, physical team that can roll four lines with the best of them. They also have a couple of very good defenseman and an all-world goaltender. Like everything with the Habs over the last decade, let’s start with Carey Price. It’s easy to forget now, but Price entered the playoffs as a bit of a question mark coming off a .901 save percentage in the regular season, the second-lowest of his career. His playoff run so far this year is nearly identical to his impressive run in the bubble, to the point where it’s scary. He’s easily Montréal’s most important player and at the focal point of this already successful run.

Comparing Carey Price’s Last Two Playoff Runs

Save PercentageShutoutsGoals Saved Above Expected
2020.93625.5
2021.93515.6

But this isn’t a case of Price carrying a team to a level way above their weight class. This is a legitimately solid Habs team, one that’s gotten better and better as the playoffs have progressed. The Canadiens have broken up their vaunted top line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Gallagher; instead, Artturi Lehkonen is taking over for Tatar. Fun fact: this won’t be the third-round series involving Vegas where Tomas Tatar is healthy scratched. The results have been incredible: 59.15% Corsi, 67.85% xG, 2-0 goal differential at 5-on-5. That’s only in 33 minutes, so a very small sample size, but those are some fantastic early returns. Yes, Danault (2 assists) isn’t scoring, but a lot of his value comes in the defensive zone.

Equally impressive (and in a larger sample size of 83 minutes) is Montréal’s “second” line of Tyler Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Cole Caufield. Toffoli quietly finished 7th in the NHL with 28 goals, nearly tying his career-high of 31 goals, which he achieved in 2015-16, playing in 30 more games thanks to the absence of a pandemic back then. He leads the team with ten points in the playoffs and had the series & OT winner over Winnipeg. Caufield was the one who set him up; we all know he can score, but the 2019 1st rounder has four assists in nine playoff games, two of which have been in OT. Suzuki has been at the epicenter of so much of Montréal’s biggest moments in the last two playoffs, although the Habs have been outshot by a significant margin when he’s on the ice (45.82% Corsi, last among MTL forwards).

If you’re a team lacking star power like these Canadiens, you need plenty of depth scoring to succeed. Sure enough, a pair of veterans about fifteen years removed from a Cup win in Eric Staal and Corey Perry have come in clutch during this run, combining for four goals and thirteen points during these playoffs. The circumstances of the Staal trade are eerily similar to the move the Rangers made to acquire Staal from Carolina in 2016. Staal was a pumpkin for New York in a poor showing that led to a first-round exit that year; the current version of Staal is probably what the Rangers were hoping for back then.

I’d also expect Josh Anderson to use his 6’3”, 226 lb frame to his advantage in what figures to be a physical series; he’s got just one goal so far in the playoffs. Somehow, Montréal’s third line of Anderson, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and Paul Byron have combined for just one assist in the playoffs. Strange, but true.

Montréal’s Game 4 victory to complete the sweep of Winnipeg overshadowed the fact that Jeff Petry didn’t play in the game. According to head coach Dominique Ducharme, Petry will be back “early” in this series, but not having him for, say, the first game or two would be a devastating blow. Montréal’s defense is built around having two outstanding right-handed d-men (Petry and Shea Weber) meshing with two defensive-minded lefties (Joel Edmundson and Ben Chiarot, respectively).

Obviously, with Petry out of the lineup, that formula is all out of whack. His ability to carry the puck and create offense is crucial to the Canadiens’ success, and though he hasn’t had an amazing playoff, even briefly being without him will really sting. Erik Gustafsson can replicate some of that value, especially on the power-play. But using him above a sheltered third-pair role is asking for trouble. Trust me. I’m a Flyers fan.

Players to Watch:

VGK: D Alec Martinez – There were plenty of skeptics, especially in the advanced stats community, when Vegas acquired Martinez at last year’s deadline. And while the two-time Stanley Cup winner has fit in tremendously for most of his time in the Sin City, it’s been a bit rougher go in these playoffs. Yes, the 33-year old leads Vegas with two power-play goals (not a typo) and kills penalties. But the 5-on-5 picture is a bit darker; 46.07% Corsi, 45.25% xG, 7-9 actual goals differential. Yes, Martinez blocks a lot of shots. But the Golden Knights are giving up far too many (good) looks when he’s on the ice. Alex Pietrangelo is carrying that top pair right now, but Martinez needs to do more for Vegas to reach their ceiling.

MTL: RW Brendan Gallagher – The last time the Canadiens reached this stage, Gallagher was a 21-year-old in the middle of a 41-point campaign and finished tied for third on the team with 11 playoff points. Now, Gallagher is 29, still one of the feistiest players in the NHL but hungry to avenge that 2014 disappointment. After an ice-cold start to the playoffs, Gallagher has four points in his last five games, including the ice-breaker in Game 7 against Toronto.

Gallagher’s also on the second-unit of a red-hot Montréal power-play that’s operating at a 33.3% rate over their last five games. Combine that with a struggling Vegas PK (71.4% PK, 13th in playoffs), and Gallagher could contribute nicely at 5-on-5 and the man advantage. Gallagher’s value isn’t entirely dependent on points. But someone’s going to need to step on a Habs team lacking a true goal scorer (save for maybe Tyler Toffoli).

The Pick: There’s no such thing as a pushover opponent when you get this deep in the playoffs. Underdogs like the Canadiens have pushed contenders like Vegas to and sometimes past their breaking point over the years. And I fully expect the Habs to play with their hearts on their sleeves all series long.

But they’ve finally met an opponent too strong to grind past. Vegas has the same hunger, physicality, and goaltending that’s led the Canadiens to this point. Unfortunately for Montréal, Vegas also has gobs of high-end talent that they just cannot compete with. The two teams are structured very similarly; top-line built for defense and talented second-line with great chemistry and two elite defensemen on separate pairs with outstanding goaltending. Vegas just has better personnel filling these roles; it’s really as simple as that. Ever since Alex Ovechkin lifted the Cup on their ice, Vegas has been pining for a return to the Finals for revenge. They’ll get that chance this year. Vegas in 5.

Check out our other Round 3 preview, a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals that the Lightning won… but the Islanders already have a 1-0 series lead in this go-round.

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. Price and Fleury have both been unreal so far in these playoffs; expect them to stand on their heads the rest of the way. But I don’t think there will be a single shutout between the two former first-round selections.

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