There are storylines a-plenty in a 2021 Stanley Cup Final featuring two teams from the same division (during a non-pandemic year), the Tampa Bay Lightning versus the Montreal Canadiens. One team, Tampa Bay, is on track to enter the NHL’s history books as one of the greatest teams ever with a victory in this series. The other, Montreal, has a chance to be perhaps the league’s most unlikely champion and the first team from Canada to win a title since 1993. This is also setting up to a titanic clash of styles: the offensively gifted Lightning face the playoffs’ best defensive team.
Who will the 2021 Stanley Cup? Here is how the matchup breaks down:
Tampa Bay Lightning (Central Division Champion) vs. Montreal Canadiens (North Division Champion)
Tampa Bay took out the New York Islanders to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second straight year. The road was hardly easy. This year, the Lightning disposed of a talented Florida squad, as well as a very game Carolina Hurricanes team. By beating two good teams convincingly, it might be time to start calling Tampa Bay one of the league’s best teams ever if another title is in the cards. Only once in the last 23 years has the Stanley Cup champion repeated in back-to-back seasons.
The Lightning can beat opponents at whatever type of game they want to play. Do you want to play a high-scoring track meet? Nikita Kucherov (NHL-leading 27 playoff points), Steven Stamkos, and Brayden Point (NHL-leading 14 playoff goals) lead an electric offense. Do you want to play a low-scoring, tight-checking game? Tampa Bay might be the best defensive team in the NHL, featuring six terrific blue liners led by Victor Hedman (16 points) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (12-6-0, 1.99 goals-against average, .936 save percentage), the best goalie in the world right now. Do you want to make it rough and physical game against Tampa Bay? The Lightning have plenty of size and grit; Blake Coleman, Ross Colton, Barclay Goodrow, and Pat Maroon are no fun to play against. They are as complete a team as there has been in the salary cap era.
The Canadiens’ storybook run continued with a great playoff upset when they eliminated the Vegas Golden Knights in the semifinals. With a team featuring four terrific defenders (Shea Weber, Joel Edmundson, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot) and a generational goaltender (Carey Price), the Canadiens certainly had the talent on paper to upset Vegas. The most surprising aspect of the series was how Montreal absolutely outplayed the Golden Knights throughout so much of it. The Habs deserve to be here.
Price (12-5-0, 2.02 GAA, .934 SP) has been terrific in the playoffs. Montreal’s hulking four blueliners have taken full advantage of a lax rulebook and poor officiating. The team forced one turnover after another against Vegas — just like it did against Toronto, just like it did against Winnipeg — then took the play the other way. Montreal’s top line of Tyler Toffoli (team-leading five goals and 14 points), Nick Suzuki (team-leading five goals and 13 points), and rookie Cole Caufield mastered this, scoring at will in the six-game series. Caufield, especially, had his breakout performance against the Golden Knights, and Tampa must figure out a way to slow down the budding star. Caufield has plenty of help as Montreal gets contributions from everyone in their lineup.
Tampa Bay struggled at times generating offense against the New York Islanders, and Montreal will ramp up the defensive quotient even higher in this finals series. The Canadiens will look to force turnovers and generate quick offense, but Tampa Bay is a team that generally makes few mistakes with the puck. Certainly, they are much deeper down the middle than the Golden Knights. I expect Montreal to try to slow down the game, but the Lightning will be willing and ready for that, and feature a deadly power play. I do not see any way, other than through Price, for the Canadiens to come out on top — just as it was when they faced off against Vegas. I will take Tampa Bay to win their second straight Stanley Cup in five games, but these will likely all be tight contests.