There’s little to suggest the Montreal Canadiens should be happy facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. Put simply, they’re going up against the Stanley Cup champions who effectively just added a Hart Memorial Trophy winner in Nikita Kucherov for the playoffs.
Maybe Kucherov did get injured in Game 6 against the New York Islanders, maybe not. Regardless, he returned for the series clincher, meaning the Canadiens should expect an even more potent offense than the one that scored 180 goals during the regular season, compared to 158 by the Habs.
There are two additional things to consider:
- The Canadiens scored 33 of those goals in the first seven games of the season, making their 17th-ranked 2.82 goals per game misleading and
- Taking into account the mere 145 goals the Lightning allowed (ranked sixth), the swing between the caliber of both teams is even more significant on paper, with the Habs having allowed 165 (18th).
In Round 3, there were several reasons to suggest the Canadiens drew the easier match-up in the Vegas Golden Knights (at least for them). In the Final, there’s no way around acknowledging the obvious: The Canadiens are clear underdogs against the Lightning, especially due to how the Habs could have theoretically drawn the less-insurmountable Islanders instead.
Regardless, even if there’s a storm brewing ahead of Game 1 of the Canadiens’ series against the Lightning, every cloud has at least one silver lining. In this case there are three:
3. A Tired Lightning Team?
This being the Lightning’s second consecutive Stanley Cup Final, they should theoretically be more tired than the Canadiens. Altogether, the Lightning have played 169 games the last two seasons compared to 154 by the Habs. Over the last four, with the Canadiens having missed the postseason in both 2018 and 2019, the Lightning have played an additional 21 games for a total difference of 36 in that span.
It’s admittedly a stretch, considering the Islanders would have had the propensity to be similarly worn out, having played in 165 games the last two years. Under head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders have played 255 over the last three, compared to 236 by the Canadiens.
Furthermore, there’s little denying the Islanders are a weaker team, even if only due to the simple fact the Lightning have eliminated them in two straight postseasons. There’s obviously more to it than that though, with the Lightning being a powerhouse from top to bottom.
2. An Atlantic Rivalry Rekindled
At the very least, the Canadiens should know the Lightning better than the Islanders. The Habs and Lightning had been in the same Atlantic Division since 2014-15, prior to this past season’s re-alignment.
Since then, the Canadiens are 1-1 against the Lightning in the playoffs. The Habs swept them in the first round in 2014 (when the Lightning were forced to play Anders Lindback in net instead of an injured Ben Bishop), and lost 4-2 the following postseason in Round 2. All-time, the Lightning are 2-1 against the Habs, having swept them in the second round in 2004 en route to their first Stanley Cup.
On the plus side, the Canadiens should know this incarnation of the Lightning very well, with Carter Verhaeghe, Braydon Coburn and Zach Bogosian being the key subtractions relative to 2020-21. The key additions: Ross Colton and David Savard.
That’s the good news. The bad news? Whereas the Canadiens were 2-0 against the Islanders last regular season, they were 0-4 against the Lightning. In sharp contrast though, the Habs are a very different team than the one the Lightning last faced, which should play in their favor to a degree.
1. Canadiens Better Suited to Face Lightning Based on Their Identity
It would play directly into the Canadiens’ plans for the Lightning to underestimate them and see them as a mere No. 4 seeds or the team they swept during the 2019-20 regular season. The Habs are better than many care to admit, with luck playing only a minimal role in their success.
Sure, the Canadiens are the playoff team with the fewest amount of points (59 compared to the Lightning’s 75). However, in beating the heavily favored Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 and the Golden Knights in Round 3, the Canadiens discovered their identity as a stingy defensive team that can play rope-a-dope and come out on top against offensively dynamic opponents, waiting for the right moment to strike off the rush going the other way.
It’s hard to say the Canadiens have realized their full potential under head coach Dominique Ducharme. After all, the Canadiens went 5-0-2 to start the season under his predecessor Claude Julien, almost scoring goals at will. Those games showed a team that could go toe to toe with the Lightning in a shootout and stand a chance at success.
Ultimately though, the Canadiens struggled through the rest of the regular season. Down 3-1 against the Leafs in Round 1, they rebranded themselves as arguably the team general manager Marc Bergevin envisioned when he acquired the likes of backup goalie Jake Allen and defenseman Joel Edmundson last offseason to insulate starter Carey Price (in addition to Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Corey Perry).
Combined with Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, the Habs’ top four on defense (Jeff Petry) have become adept at boxing out opponents to the point of visibly frustrating them, like Knights captain Mark Stone last series. In contrast, it’s easy to imagine the Canadiens having had to alter their game plan to a certain extent to play the defensively masterminded Islanders, otherwise setting both sides up for a perpetual game of chess on ice instead of hockey. There are no goals in chess, fyi.
It remains to be seen how these new Canadiens fare against the Lightning, because to a certain extent it has all the signs of a slaughter in the making. Granted, the Canadiens are far from meek lambs, but for them to have success it at least in part depends on the Lightning seeing them as such. Three rounds in and with so much at stake, it’s unlikely the Lightning take them for granted.
Ironically, the Canadiens can draw inspiration from what the Islanders were able to accomplish last round, taking the Lightning to the limit. If the Islanders could just barely miss out on a Stanley Cup Final playing in front of Semyon Varlamov, it’s at least possible Price can backstop the Habs to an upset. Undeniably though, that upset would only be able to be described as monumental, seeing as Price’s counterpart, fellow Vezina Trophy-winner Andrei Vasilevskiy, may end up being the least of the Canadiens’ problems.
So, it at least has the makings of a long series for the Canadiens. It’s up to them to ensure it doesn’t just feel that way, because the more games it goes the more doubt can conceivably creep in for the Lightning.
Of course, the Canadiens will gladly take a four-game sweep, if they’re the ones doing the sweeping, but realistically this Lightning team is not the same one that lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games in 2019. They’re more battle-tested and likely still hungry to win a championship for their fans, this time outside of last year’s bubble. If the Canadiens are going to burst theirs these playoffs, it will take (much) more of the same resilience and tenacity they’ve shown through the first three rounds. So, yes, they’re likely willing to give it their best shot, but “happy?” Get back to them in around two weeks’ time.