By Cole Parkinson
I feel like I’ve written this column before.
The Montreal Canadiens, despite being underdogs, are once again advancing, but this time they’re heading to the Stanley Cup Finals where they’ll face the defending champions — the Tampa Bay Lightning. And while the Canadiens may not look like a top-two team on paper when looking at rosters across the league, they’ve proven they’re more than capable of beating up any team in the NHL.
They may not outscore teams by large margins very often, but their defence has been impeccable since Game 5 of the first round, and it’s hardly broken since then.
As of June 28, the team is 11-2 since that game, and despite being heavy underdogs against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Canadiens did what they do best — tighten up defensively and score big goals when the opportunity arises. I stated in my previous column about the Habs — that while goaltender Carey Price deserves a ton of credit, the entire team deserves props because of the way they play in their own end.
And after the semi-final series, I don’t think anyone can state the Habs are in the Stanley Cup Finals solely because of Price. They defend just as well as any team across the NHL, and you have to think that’s the game plan heading into the first game of the Finals.
Looking at their player stats, none of the Habs offensive numbers jump out at you. Tyler Toffoli leads the team with 14 points in 17 games, followed by Nick Suzuki with 13 and in third place is veteran Corey Perry with nine. But another factor for Montreal’s offensive success has been the emergence of rookie Cole Caufield who has chipped in four goals and nine points in 15 games.
Looking across the way, Tampa Bay has the top five scorers in these playoffs with Nikita Kucherov (27 points in 18 games), Brayden Point (20 points in 18 games), Alex Killorn (17 points in 18 games), Steven Stamkos (17 points in 18 games) and Victor Hedman (16 points in 18 games).
So while it certainly seems like Tampa has more firepower than Montreal, that doesn’t mean much in the playoffs, as the Habs have proven over and over again. They’ll need to do it one more time to take home the Stanley Cup though.
This series will feature two of the top goalies in the league with Price and Andrei Vasilevskiy — both sit on top of the leaderboard for save percentage. Vasilevskiy heads into the series with a .936, while Price trails with a .934 — a pretty good match-up if you ask me. It certainly seems like each goalie will steal at least one game, but from there, it really does feel like it’s anyone’s series.
Tampa Bay is favoured at -238, while the Habs are getting +190, so once again the Habs head into the series as the underdog, but at this point, that’s probably right where they want to be.
An integral part of winning four of the next seven for the Habs is scoring first. They’re 11-2 when scoring first since Game 5 of the first round, and they are 11-0 when they score at least two goals, so if they can get the first and lock it down defensively, they’re in a good position. But Tampa is arguably the best team in the league, and the task of shutting down Kucherov, Point, Stamkos and Hedman will be a ridiculously hard task.
Another good stat for the Habs heading into the series is the fact their penalty kill has been rock solid. Through 17 games, they’ve killed 93.5 per cent of their penalties — that is a recipe for success in the playoffs. Their power play has also been clicking at a 20.9 per cent pace, which is pretty decent.
The bad news for Montreal is Tampa’s power play is deadly, as they’ve finished 41.4 per cent of their power plays across 18 games with a goal. It seems like we’re about to see what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The Lightning also kill penalties pretty regularly at 83 per cent.
The match-up of the Phillip Danault, Arthur Lehkonen, Brendan Gallagher line versus Point, Kucherov and Ondrej Palat will be a major deciding factor for the series. The Danault line has been able to stop top lines consistently for the past several series, and if they can shut down Tampa’s top line, that could lead to another Stanley Cup victory in Montreal. But that’s not a small ask for any line.
Kucherov has come out like a man on fire after spending the entire regular season on injured reserve and Point is one of the most clutch playoff performers I’ve seen in years.
It’s going to be a great series, I have no doubt.
So Habs fans have probably been waiting for my prediction, as I’ve got every single one wrong so far this season. So rest easy Canadiens fans — I’m taking the Lightning in six games. If history has shown anything, it’s the Montreal Canadiens love making me look like a fool, so let’s see if they can do it one more time.
Let’s also hope more fans are allowed into Bell Centre for the Stanley Cup Finals because it just isn’t the same without as many fans as possible. That doesn’t mean it needs to be packed either — the 3,500 fans allowed in for Game 6 of the semi-final were incredibly loud, but it would be a shame to not fill it to at least 50 per cent capacity.
And while I certainly won’t be rooting for Montreal, but as I’ve said in the past, it’s hard not to at least smile watching Habs fans have such a great time watching their team succeed in the playoffs. One day, I’d like to experience it for myself!