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Peter’s Picture: The NHL Landscape Vol. 20

The Daily’s Peter Knowles gives a professional hockey update

By

The defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that is on the verge of becoming a true dynasty, are hosting the ultimate underdog Montréal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final. In a typical non-pandemic season, this matchup would actually be impossible in the finals given the fact that they both reside in the Eastern Conference, but because of the formatting of the playoffs and the fact that the remaining teams were re-seeded in the semifinals, we have two Atlantic Division teams left. Interestingly, that means next season will be the second year in a row where the two finalists will be placed in the same division, which is what happened this year with the Dallas Stars and the Lightning in the Central Division.

Let’s get to a quick recap of the action so far and predictions about who will be hoisting the ultimate prize and who will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay’s Path

This final series is really a story of belonging. On one hand, we have the Lightning, who are exactly where they were expected to be. With the best goalie in the league over the last few years, an elite offensive unit led by forward Brayden Point, a generational defenseman in Victor Hedman and the experience of having completed the gauntlet less than a calendar year ago, the Bolts come in as the favorites. Despite finishing the regular season as just the third best team in their division, they have functioned like an absolute machine in the postseason once again.

Just over a month ago, they started their title defense against their in-state rival Florida Panthers, who were coming off of an impressive regular season campaign that saw them finish ahead of the Lightning and only behind the Carolina Hurricanes in the division. Unfortunately for head coach Joel Quenneville and his Panthers team, the Bolts attack found its groove, scoring 24 goals in six contests while goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy became more and more dialed in as the series went along. He provided the dagger in the heart of the Panthers when he allowed no goals on 29 shots in the series-clinching game — his second straight shutout in the series — which also followed up on his shutout against the Dallas Stars in game six to seal the title last summer.

Next up were the Carolina Hurricanes. These two teams seemed destined for a clash all season, with many believing that the Canes actually posed the biggest threat to the Bolts, but things looked over quickly after Vasilevskiy backstopped the team to two quick wins, both by 2-1 scores, on enemy territory. Losing the opening two games of a series on home ice is never a good sign, and the Hurricanes could never overcome it, eventually falling in five games. If the first series was an example of the offensive potential of this team, their second round matchup was an example of what world-class goaltending can do. In their four wins, Vasilevskiy made a combined 118 saves on 124 shots, good for a .952 save percentage, while also notching his third consecutive shutout in a series-clinching game.

Then it was time for a rematch. The Lightning met the New York Islanders for the second straight postseason with a trip to the final on the line. Last year, the Lightning required six games to dispose of the Isles, but it would take every second of seven games plus a brief overtime to do it this year. After an 8-0 shellacking in Tampa to take a 3-2 series lead, the team went back to New York to try to close out the series. And with a two-goal lead more than halfway through the tilt, it looked like history was going to repeat itself. But then the Isles stormed back with a goal in the second period and one more in the third to force overtime, where forward Anthony Beauvillier scored what is now going to be remembered as the last-ever goal in Nassau Coliseum, with the Islanders set to begin playing in a new barn next season. On to game seven! In a tightly contested and hard fought battle that lasted until the very end, the Bolts claimed a 1-0 victory on the shoulders of forward Yanni Gourde’s shorthanded goal to punch their ticket back to the final, with Vasilevskiy posting his fourth consecutive shutout in a series-clinching game. Unreal.

Montreal’s Path

To say the Habs are an underdog might be an understatement. Not only were the Canadiens the least successful regular season team out of the 16 total participating in the tournament, they actually ranked 18th overall in the league standings, even behind two non-playoff teams in the Dallas Stars and New York Rangers. The team limped into the first round by default after losing their final five games and still qualifying, much thanks to the Calgary Flames being allergic to wins and the Vancouver Canucks dealing with a month-long COVID-19 pause that resulted in most of the team getting sick. The Habs are one of only two postseason teams who entered with a negative goal differential. The St. Louis Blues entered with a -1 differential, while these Canadiens entered with a -9 rating.

Despite that, the Habs clawed back from a 3-1 series deficit against the North Division’s regular season champion Toronto Maple Leafs, winning three straight to advance to the second round. They were underdogs again in the second round but it didn’t matter as they rinsed the Winnipeg Jets, winning four straight to sweep and secure their spot in the semifinals. The story repeated itself against Las Vegas as the Golden Knights entered as heavy favorites, but it once again did not make a difference in the outcome. On the heels of a dramatic overtime winner in game six by forward Artturi Lehkonen, the Canadiens are heading back to their first Cup Final since 1993. 

Montreal’s recipe for winning is quite simple as an idea but extremely difficult in practice: shut down the top-end talent of the opponent and lean on Carey Price to make saves in key moments. In their series against the Maple Leafs, they were facing two of the top seven point-getters in the entire NHL over the course of the regular season in forwards Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Matthews scored a league-best 41 goals on the Leafs’ high-flying offense, but was thwarted once the Canadiens found their game halfway through the series. He and Marner combined for no goals and just two assists in the three games after going up 3-1 in the series. The story was the same for the Jets, who lost their best player, forward Mark Scheifele, after a hit in Game 1 that earned him a four-game suspension. Winnipeg could only muster six goals in the four games of the series. Their captain, forward Blake Wheeler, never registered a single point. Their top center, Pierre-Luc Dubois, filling the void of Scheifele, managed just one assist in the four games.

The most remarkable performance came against Vegas, where their defensive group limited all of Vegas’ forwards to just four goals in six games. Their top offensive talent and captain forward Mark Stone never had a point in any of the games and was a complete non-factor. The top four giants on Montréal’s blue line — Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot and Joel Edmundson — were spectacular at limiting the time and space of Vegas’ forwards, which is why they never found their groove.

Stanley Cup Prediction

No matter who wins, we have quite the goaltender battle on our hands. Two of the very best in the business are facing off as Carey Price looks to win that elusive Stanley Cup and add it to his Hall of Fame resume, while Andrei Vasilevskiy is trying to add more silverware to his successful young career. They sport the top-two save percentages these playoffs, with Vasilevskiy’s .936 and Price’s .934.

I believe that Montréal will match up with Tampa very similarly to how the Islanders did. They will have a similar gameplan, too. To win, they must make life miserable for the most talented players that the Lightning have to offer, which means hitting, pushing and poking the likes of forwards Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point every time they step onto the ice and never letting them get to the net front. One great stat from the Canadiens is that every time the team has scored two goals or more in a game during these playoffs, they win. Vasilevskiy is equally able to steal a game by being the best guy on the ice and not allowing anything to get by him.

A mixture of my head and my heart are telling me to go with the Canadiens. How amazing would that be if they came in as the 18th ranked team in the league and won it all? They seem to overcome every challenge thrown their way — they even won the semifinals without their head coach on the bench as he completed his quarantine following a positive COVID-19 test. It would be the first Stanley Cup for the franchise since 1993 and also the first Cup for any Canadian team since then. Many players on the Habs deserve this cup and are on the back nine of their careers, none more so than Carey Price and captain, defensemen Shea Weber.  They will continue to rely on their depth and young talent in the form of forwards Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield, who have both been excellent so far in these playoffs. Behind them, they have so many character guys that put it all on the line to win, led by forwards Brendan Gallagher and Corey “The Worm” Perry. Their biggest challenge is ahead, but I think they can do it if they stick to their formula of tough defending and timely goaltending from Price, who thrives under pressure.

The Montréal Canadiens will defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games to win the Stanley Cup. Carey Price will win the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Peter Knowles '22 is a staff writer in the sports section. He is a Psychology major from Valencia, California and plays on the Stanford Hockey team. Contact him at pknowles 'at' stanforddaily.com.