The Montreal Canadiens are not supposed to be playing this deep in the postseason. They are the NHL team that has drawn the most “what are you even doing here?” reactions the most since the postseason started. Heck, two teams that didn’t even get the chance to play beyond the regular season had more points than the Canadiens, with the New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars each finishing with 59 points. To be fair, none of the top seven point-getters in the regular season are making preparations today for the Stanley Cup Finals. (The Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending NHL champions, had 77 points back in the regular season.)
The Habs were circling down the drain in the first round after falling down a 3-1 hole against the stacked Toronto Maple Leafs. But this is the NHL, where Cinderella runs are more normalized but nonetheless captivating. The Canadiens grabbed the Winnipeg Jets by their collars and threw them out the window in a second-round sweep. Then they proceeded to win the come-out roll in a crapshoot against the Vegas Golden Knights, whose 82 points in the regular season were tied for most, in six games in the semifinals.
Beating the Lightning will be a tall order for the Canadiens, but as they have shown in the series win over the Maple Leafs and the Golden Knights, odds can be rendered meaningless in the end. Here are a couple of reasons why the Canadiens will deny the Lightning a repeat and bring home the Stanley Cup for the first time in 28 years.
Canadiens’ Price surge
The perception that Carey Price is carrying the Canadiens on his back in this postseason just like LeBron James did in those Cleveland Cavaliers teams that made multiple NBA Finals, is further to the reality than what most people think. But it’s also undeniable that Price is having an incredible playoff performance in 2021. He has truly stepped it up. In the regular season, Price only had a 12-7-5 record, .901 SV% (37th among goalies with at least 20 games played), and a 2.64 GAA (20th).
Since the playoffs started, the former Vezina Trophy winner has raised his game and come up with a 12-5 record, .934 SV%, and a 2.02 GAA entering the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals. Against a loaded Golden Knights team that averaged 3.39 GF/G in the regular season, Price helped limit their production to just 2.2 GF/G. In those six games against Vegas, which by the way outshot Montreal in all meetings at even strength, Carey posted a .945 SV% without also giving up a single power-play goal. There’s just something about the playoffs that Price thrives in, and whether that’s the pressure, the pure ecstasy of turning away shots, or whatever it is, it’s definitely working between the pipes for the 33-year-old netminder.
It’s more than just the price…
The most obvious– and convenient — argument anyone could make about why the Canadiens will win it all this year is also a sentimental one and that’s no other than the man we just talked about: Carey Price. But don’t let that be the only mainstream positive narrative for the team. As good as Price has been, you could also say that the Canadiens’ offense has got his back. The Habs enter the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals having found the back of the net first in 11 of their past 13 games. The Habs’ record during that stretch? A solid 11-2.
Early goals should be harder to come by against Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning, but Montreal’s first two lines should be up to the task of providing Price some run and defensive support.
As recently pointed out by JFresh, the Canadiens (arguably) have the best first line in the NHL over the past three seasons with the trio of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault, and Brendan Gallagher.
There's no analytics wizardry at work here. No Corsis, no expected goals, none of that. The Habs' first line has outscored opponents 93 to 48 in the past three seasons, a larger margin than any other trio to play over 750 minutes together. That's just a fact.
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 28, 2021
Tatar hasn’t played since Game 5 of the Toronto series, but with Artturi Lehkonen joining Danault and Gallagher, the triumvirate has become one of the best in the playoffs.
Lehkonen only has three goals in the playoffs, Gallagher has two, while Danault remains scoreless after three rounds with just three assists to show, but their impact has been immense. Together, they have a 68.1 xFG%, which is the best among all lines this postseason with at least 100 minutes of ice time and second in xGoals against (3.6). Just ask Vegas star Mark Stone all about it.
Stone got shut down by Danault’s line in the semifinals, and if Montreal could do the same to either Brayden Point or Nikita Kucherov, the story should be a whole lot more favorable for the Canadiens in the finals. The Habs already seem to have a bit of a headstart in that area, with Kucherov probably not 100% healthy after hurting his hip late in the second round against the New York Islanders.
Everybody must have already heard about this one, but it’s still worth reiterating. The Habs’ penalty kill has been unforgiving in the playoffs. They limited Vegas to just a 0-of-15 line on the man advantage in the previous round. Before that, the Jets went 0 of 8. In the first round, Toronto was just 3 of 23. All told, Montreal has a 93.5 PK% entering the Stanley Cup Finals, and that will be a huge asset for them in combating Tampa Bay’s lethal power play.