Canadiens’ 3 Keys to Success Against the Lightning

The Stanley Cup Final is now just a few hours away, and the matchup is finalized. Credit should be given to anyone who predicted prior to the start of the NHL playoffs that the Montreal Canadiens would be squaring off against the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning. I am sure a few people did, but I would be skeptical if their estimates were based on real belief rather than just wishful thinking. That, or they own a sports almanac from the future, much like Biff Tannen from the film Back to the Future.

Unlike those Biff types, the rest of us will be lucky enough to enjoy the results as they are happening, meaning right now, we are left to speculate on what aspects of the game will swing the pendulum of success in the favor of either team. My colleague Eugene Helfrick has aptly identified some key storylines for the series, partially stating what the Lightning and Canadiens would likely have to do in order to give themselves a chance to win, but the details of ‘how’ should be elaborated on in some of these instances. With that in mind, here are three keys to success for the Canadiens heading into the Stanley Cup Final.

3. Win the Special Teams Battle

Special teams could be a deciding factor in the series. Unfortunately, the status of Joel Armia, who is one of the Canadiens’ premier penalty killers, is still unknown after a positive Covid test. In any case, with the Lightning power play running at near 38 percent efficiency, the Canadiens will have to find other players to help to shut them down.

Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens
Joel Armia is a very effective penalty killer but his status for the series is still unclear (Covid Protocol).
MONTREAL, QC – JANUARY 23: Joel Armia #40 of the Montreal Canadiens skates against the Arizona Coyotes in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on January 23, 2019 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images)

The penalty killers cannot be passive in any zone and so this should include, in my opinion, aggressive, but tactical, pressure by the Montreal forwards up ice while the Lightning break out. The goal here is to continually turn their opponents back and cause them to regroup over and over again. As a result, the Lightning may begin to force stretch passes. If they do, the Canadiens should be in a position to outnumber the puck carrier near the blueline, forcing rushed passes or dump-ins.

Ultimately, though, like in any shorthanded scenario, the Canadiens’ defense needs to win puck battles in the corners, even in outnumbered situations. This is potentially where the Canadiens big defense can shine and stifle the Lightning power play. Doing so would go a long way in this series.

2. Danault Line and Defense Must Be Physical on Point and Kucherov

Descriptions in sports can often be hyperbolic, but the expected match-up between Phillip Danault, Brayden Point, and likely Nikita Kucherov might be career-defining, at least from Danault’s perspective. The forward stated after Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights that “legends are born in the playoffs.” This is as good a chance as he may get to become one in Montreal. Granted, he has already managed (although not entirely alone) to effectively shut down elite competition in the previous three playoff rounds: Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Stone, and Max Pacioretty, to name a few. No disrespect to the aforementioned players, but Point and Kucherov present an even bigger challenge, primarily because they are fully proven playoff performers who have won a Stanley Cup as recently as last season.

Phillip Danault Montreal Canadiens
Phillip Danault’s matchup against Brayden Point could be career defining
Phillip Danault, Montreal Canadiens (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Danault and his expected linemates, Artturi Lehkonen and Brendan Gallagher, and the Canadiens defensemen will have to be as physical as possible on Point and Kucherov at every opportunity. Kucherov is likely not playing at 100 percent after receiving a cross-check from New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield. He has since sarcastically denied any injury occurred, even though he missed the remainder of Game 6 in that series. The Danault line and the Canadiens defense should test the Russian forward early in Game 1 to find out what sort of punishment he is willing to put himself through.

It is very doubtful that either Point or Kucherov can be intimidated, but they should have it in their heads that nothing will be easy. The Habs have 656 hits through the playoffs, so far and an upward trend needs to continue for them to have success.

1. Make Vasilevskiy’s Life Difficult

Andrei Vasilevskiy is an excellent goaltender. He is big, fast, and very athletic. The strategy here should not come as a surprise to anyone then. The Canadiens must make his life as difficult as possible. A potential issue here is that the Canadiens do most of their damage off of the rush and are at times limited in their offensive zone time. This will need to change as goalies of Vasilevskiy’s calibre are rarely beaten on clean shots.

Andrei Vasilevskiy Tampa Bay Lightning
Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Having players like Gallagher and Corey Perry should help create extensive distractions for the netminder. However, the Canadiens will need all lines to sustain this. Something they did very well against the Winnipeg Jets and Golden Knights was the utilization of the space behind the net. It did not always lead to goals, but it forced the goaltenders to always be looking backwards. This would be exhausting for anyone. In addition, this strategy causes goalies to anticipate potential movement to either side of the net. It would be wise for the Canadiens to test Vasilevskiy’s lateral movement as much as possible. If they can get him moving as frequently as possible, it should help open up space to bury some goals.

Game 1 should set the tone for the series. If the Canadiens can commit to some of these strategies, as they have done all playoffs, the upside in this matchup should become more evident, and they should be able to win their first title since 1993.

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