The 2021 Stanley Cup Final is filled with contrasts. On the one hand, the Montreal Canadiens are the most storied franchise in hockey history, with 23 Cups on the club’s resume. But they haven’t appeared in the Final since winning the last of those in 1993. On the other hand, the Tampa Bay Lightning had just become a team when the Habs last lifted Lord Stanley. Despite the franchise’s youth, the Lightning have become one of the league’s best teams this century. They won their second Cup last year and have established themselves as a mainstay in the playoffs.
Now the two will meet with everything on the line. The Canadiens emerged from the league’s pandemic-created North Division, a collection of the NHL’s six Canadian franchises (all grouped together because of COVID travel protocols and restrictions), and then beat the Vegas Golden Knights in the semifinal round to claim their spot in the Final. The Lightning took the Central Division and beat the prickly New York Islanders in a seven-game series to earn their shot at a repeat championship. The games start Monday night and run every other night until there’s a winner, with American broadcasts on NBC Sports Network for the first two games and NBC after that. Each game starts at 8 p.m. (EDT), except Game 7, which will start at 7 p.m. (EDT) if needed.
Here are four storylines that will define the series.
How will the Canadiens deal with the Lightning’s significant talent edge?
On paper and in reality, Tampa Bay has the better players. Center Brayden Point has 14 goals in this year’s playoffs; no other player has more than eight. Winger Nikita Kucherov, who missed the entire regular season with an injury, has 27 points. Nobody else has more than 20, and nobody outside Tampa Bay has more than 16. (Kucherov and Point, along with teammates Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and Victor Hedman, lead the league in playoff points.) Montreal has two players, winger Tyler Toffoli and center Nick Suzuki, with 14 and 13 points, respectively.
The teams haven’t faced each other yet this season because the NHL limited teams to playing within their divisions. It’s not entirely clear how the Habs will try to neutralize the Lightning’s big guns. It’s also not clear how involved head coach Dominique Ducharme will be for the first two games: Due to a positive COVID test, he can’t get behind the bench until Game 3.
Both teams have elite goalies. Will either one crack?
26-year-old Lightning backstop Andrei Vasilevskiy is the best goaltender in the world right now. In 18 playoff games, he has allowed 36 goals, despite facing enough high-quality scoring chances that the analytics say he should’ve given up an additional 23 goals.
Vasilevskiy’s 22.8 goals saved above expectation in the playoffs are 11 more than the next-best goalie, who happens to be Montreal veteran Carey Price. The 33-year-old is a former league MVP and Vezina Trophy winner (awarded to the league’s top goalie), and he remains one of the best in the world. The likeliest outcome is that both netminders play well. If one of them surprisingly does not, that’ll change the entire dynamic of this Stanley Cup Final.
Where will Montreal find offense?
It’s obvious enough who will do the scoring for Tampa Bay. The Lightning have the best collection of forward talent in the world, and they’ll continue to get goals from those players. Their ace line of Ondrej Palat, Point, and Kucherov has been entirely unstoppable this spring. Their second line of Killorn, Stamkos, and Anthony Cirelli has been only slightly less superhuman.
Montreal doesn’t have scorers of that caliber, but the Habs do have some notable talent. They’ll need a lot from leading scorers Toffoli and Suzuki, certainly, but they’ll also need secondary scoring. One candidate who could provide it: Tiny rookie Cole Caufield. The 5-foot-7, 20-year-old winger didn’t make his NHL debut until April 26, but he has emerged as an important player for Montreal. After not scoring in his first nine playoff games, he’s scored four in his last six.
What effect will home crowds have on the series?
Home-ice advantage belongs to the Lightning, who will host the first two games, as well as Game 5 and Game 7 if necessary. When the Lightning are at home, they’ll enjoy the backing of a crowd of around 14,800 people—about 80 percent capacity for Amalie Arena. On the other hand, when the Canadiens host Games 3, 4, and (if necessary) 6, they’ll likely only have some 3,500 fans in attendance due to COVID regulations in Quebec. While those 3,500 people might make enough noise that they sound like 20,000, the varying crowds could affect how much of a boost the teams get at home.