The 2021 Stanley Cup Final is set. In a season that has been unlike any other, two teams that normally compete in the Atlantic Division are squaring off for the NHL’s ultimate prize. The Tampa Bay Lightning advanced to their second straight Final appearance by defeating the New York Islanders in seven games, while the Montreal Canadiens reach the Final for the first time since 1993 (when they took on and beat Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings) by knocking out the Vegas Golden Knights in six games.
Many counted the Canadiens out from the start. With each round, many believed their playoff run would end, but the Habs continued to battle and prove their doubters wrong. While Tampa Bay has a roster built for sustained success with contributors throughout their lineup, Montreal has the ability to keep up and get past them. No one should assume this is going to be a cakewalk for the Lightning. There are many talented players on the Canadiens who could stand out in this series, but here are a select five that the Bolts need to figure out if they want to successfully defend their Cup title.
This Stanley Cup Final will see two of the best goalies in the league go head-to-head. Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was nominated for the Vezina Trophy for the fourth consecutive season, and Montreal’s Carey Price have carried their teams when they needed to come up big. Vasilevskiy has a 12-6 record with a .936 save percentage (SV%), a 1.99 goals-against-average (GAA), and four shutouts. Price is 12-5 with a .934 SV%, a 2.02 GAA, and one shutout.
When he is on top of his game, Price can be a brick wall between the pipes, just like Vasilevskiy. He is the backbone and last resort for Montreal’s defense and has shut down some skilled players on the Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, and Golden Knights to get to this point.
The last time these two clubs played against one another, in the 2019-20 regular season, the Lightning won all four matchups (3-1, 5-4, 2-1, and 4-0). Tampa Bay’s offense didn’t have an issue scoring on Price, especially defenseman Victor Hedman (two goals and five assists), captain Steven Stamkos (three goals and two assists in three games), Nikita Kucherov (two goals and three assists), and Alex Killorn (three goals and one assist). All four players will be relied on to continue their strong performances against the Canadiens and find an answer for Price’s stellar play. If they do not get contributions from these stars, it could be a nightmare for Tampa.
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In these playoffs, the Lightning have figured out how to solve Florida Panthers goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, Carolina Hurricanes’ Alex Nedeljkovic, and the Islanders’ Semyon Varlamov. Price is on another level though, and even with Tampa Bay’s prior success against him, postseason hockey is another animal. In this deciding series, a simple mistake could lead to massive consequences. Both goalies have the ability to keep these contests low-scoring, so every play will be significant. Price could give the Lightning forwards a difficult time throughout this Cup Final.
This trade has received a lot of attention given the semifinal series between Montreal and the Golden Knights. Suzuki was one of Vegas’ first draft picks back in 2017 (13th overall); however, he was traded to Montreal with forward Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick in 2019 for former Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty before the 2018-19 campaign. Since then, Suzuki has become a rising young talent, who will likely be among the faces of their forward core for many seasons to come. He and fellow forward Jesperi Kotkaniemi are two key pieces who will take the reins offensively for the Canadiens.
Suzuki posted the following so far in this regular-season career:
- 2019-20: 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points in 71 games
- 2020-21: 15 goals and 26 assists for 41 points in 56 games
In the 2021 Playoffs, the 21-year-old is second in scoring behind winger Tyler Toffoli by a point. He notched five goals and eight assists in 17 games this postseason. Tampa Bay’s defense will have to keep him in check during this series because he plays such an important role for them already. He has stayed consistent in his production no matter which team he was up against, with four points (two goals and two assists) versus the Maple Leafs, a point per game against the Jets (two goals and two assists) in a four-game sweep, and five points in six games against Vegas (one goal and four assists). If the Canadiens have strong showings in this series, look for Suzuki to be one of their standout players.
Against the Canadiens, the Golden Knights’ top forwards were shut down offensively. A few of their top talents did not contribute enough for them to win the series, including captain Mark Stone. In the six-game series, he tallied no points and had a total of seven shots on net. He discussed this after Game 6 and noted, per a TSN.ca article:
“‘I got skunked this series,’ Stone said. ‘That can’t happen. I’m the captain of this team, the leader of this team. I take a lot of responsibility for what just occurred.’ Stone, a minus-4 in the series, had one shot in 17:10 of ice time in Vegas’ 3-2 overtime loss Thursday as Montreal clinched their trip to the Stanley Cup Final.”
Jonathan Marchessault also struggled to produce in the semifinal series, with one assist on Alex Pietrangelo’s second goal in Game 2, which the Canadiens won 3-2.
The Canadiens not only had strong performances from their defensemen, but their forwards also helped shut down their opponent’s offense. One of the best defensive forwards in the league is Phillip Danault. Even before the 2020-21 season, many believed he should be nominated for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, given to the best defensive forward in the league each season. He has been successful against some of the league’s best forwards and has made a big impact in this postseason, shutting down their offensive prowess.
Danault may have his greatest challenge yet, as he will most likely be paired against Lightning forward Brayden Point. Point has been the most lethal player for the Lightning in the playoffs, including a nine-game goal streak. He has 14 goals and six assists in 18 contests, and only Kucherov has more points with 27 (five goals and 22 assists). Many have tried to stop Point, but he continues to dominate. Danault will likely be the next to take on this challenge, and I look forward to watching this matchup throughout the series.
Toffoli was considered one of the top forwards available in free agency and has shown his worth since he signed a four-year contract with the Canadiens. During the regular season, he became their top scorer with 44 points in 52 games (28 goals and 16 assists), and he now leads the squad in the playoffs with five goals and nine assists in 17 contests. He is a solid complementary player who fits in well with the roster.
Toffoli, like a few of his teammates, has won the Cup. He was a significant part of the 2014 Kings team that claimed their second championship in franchise history. He posted seven goals and seven assists in 26 contests in 2014 and his Cup Final experience along with that of Eric Staal, Corey Perry (who was with the Dallas Stars in the last Cup Final), Joel Edmundson, Michael Frolik, Tatar, Jon Merrill, and backup goalie Jake Allen will make a difference to the younger, up-and-coming talents on the roster. Six members of that group have hoisted the Cup. They know what it takes to win it all and can provide guidance to others.
The Bolts will have to contain Toffoli. He has a good shot and is not afraid to plant himself in front of the net for tap-in goals or one-timers (just ask the Jets in Game 4 overtime). He needs to be monitored constantly when he’s in Tampa Bay’s zone. However, if any group of defenders can do it, it’s the Lightning’s, but he will burn them a few times in this series if they are not careful.
The addition of forward Cole Caufield has been a major storyline throughout the postseason. The Canadiens selected him 15th overall in the 2019 Draft, and he made his NHL debut in the regular season after spending most of the hockey year with the University of Wisconsin (where he was dominant with 30 goals and 22 assists in 31 games). Then he stepped on the ice in a Montreal sweater and became a game-changer for the organization, with four goals and an assist in 10 regular-season matches in 2020-21.
Now in the postseason, Caufield is tied with Perry for third in team scoring behind Toffoli and Suzuki. He has four goals and five assists in 15 games. Some considered him too small to make an impact in the NHL, and I don’t understand why. Yes, he’s 5-foot-7, but the league has seen its share of successful smaller stars in players like Martin St. Louis and Brian Gionta among others. Caufield is already a significant puzzle piece of Montreal’s offense, and he emerged in the Vegas series. Before that, he only had four assists in nine contests in the first two rounds. Against the Golden Knights, he had four goals and an assist in six games. He was a thorn in Vegas’ side, and if he continues this production level, he will be a pain for the Lightning as well.
Ultimately, while Tampa may be the favorite to repeat as Cup champions, it won’t be an easy task taking on the Canadiens. Toffoli, Suzuki, Caufield, Danault, and Price are only five of the many impactful players Montreal has donning their jersey. It will be a fight to the finish. The Lightning know they have the tools to win, but the Canadiens may have the skill to stop them. It will be a good clash.
I have been a hockey fan for most of my life, and have played the game myself for more than six years. I graduated from the State University of New York at Oswego in 2018, with a bachelor’s in Broadcasting & Mass Communication. Previous positions held include being a Sports Analyst for Oswego’s student-run TV station, WTOP-10; News/Sports Intern for WIVB-TV Channel 4; and Sports Beat Writer Intern for Pro Player Insiders.