Stanley Cup Final preview: Are Canadiens poised to dethrone Lightning?

Scott Audette / National Hockey League / Getty

It is said that history repeats itself - a sentiment that should inspire both franchises contesting this Stanley Cup Final.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, these playoffs have followed a script nearly identical to that of last year's championship run. After beating a team of plucky underdogs in the first round, they dispatched fellow Cup hopefuls in five games in the second before overcoming the New York Islanders in the third. And, for the second year in a row, waiting for Tampa in the final is a surprise opponent led by an interim head coach, a B.C.-born captain, and Corey Perry.

History runs much deeper for the Montreal Canadiens as they conjure memories from their 1993 Stanley Cup triumph. Armed with a shutdown center from Quebec, a budding American winger, and a generational goalie, they're on a playoff run that feels eerily similar to that victorious campaign. They overcame a two-game deficit against their rivals in the first round, swept Round 2, and won a pair of overtime games in the third to reach the final.

Can the Canadiens channel the Ghosts of the Forum to end the longest Cup drought in franchise history? Or will the Lightning secure an identical end to their sequel?

Lightning (-260) vs. Canadiens (+220)

Regular-season stats

LIGHTNING STAT CANADIENS
36-17-3 Record 24-21-11
53.22 (10th) xGF%* 53.00 (11th)
53.91 (7th) CF%* 54.31 (6th)
51.91 (11th) HDCF%* 51.88 (12th)
8.34 (14th) SH%* 7.52 (25th)
.921 (10th) SV%* .914 (21st)
22.2 (9th) PP% 19.2 (17th)
84.2 (4th) PK% 78.5 (23rd)

*five-on-five

Playoff stats

LIGHTNING STAT CANADIENS
12-6 Record 12-5
51.40 (7th) xGF%* 52.76 (6th)
50.02 (9th) CF%* 49.98 (10th)
54.21 (4th) HDCF%* 52.63 (5th)
7.58 (5th) SH%* 6.66 (8th)
.938 (3rd) SV%* .933 (5th)
37.7 (2nd) PP% 20.9 (7th)
83.0 (4th) PK% 93.5 (1st)
47.7 (11th) FOW%  49.2 (9th)

*five-on-five

The Canadiens have been underdogs in every series, and for the third time, oddsmakers are giving them less than a 33% chance of winning. The last time a Cup finalist was longer than a -200 favorite was when the Vancouver Canucks were favored over the Boston Bruins in 2011 - also the last time a Canadian team made the final. The Bruins won in seven games.

Though the Canadiens may feel they're again being disrespected after toppling several big favorites, the Lightning have been the league's best team for the greater part of three years. Tampa largely coasted to the Cup last year despite missing Steven Stamkos, and the team is back nine months later with a full complement of stars. Still, odds of -260 suggest the Lightning have a 72.2% chance of repeating as Stanley Cup champions. They're worthy favorites, but that's rather aggressive.

Montreal's underdog status throughout these playoffs is largely down to its 18th-place finish in a regular season plagued by injuries, COVID-19 stoppages, and an impossibly condensed schedule. The Canadiens were also mostly without Cole Caufield - a true superstar in the making who has revolutionized the team's offense - and interim coach Dominique Ducharme had just four practices to implement his system between his February takeover and the end of the season in May. Ducharme has had far more practice time with the team since the start of the playoffs, and the returns of a structure that's stymied three of the league's best offenses this postseason are starting to show.

Montreal's regular-season record left plenty to be desired, but the stats above show just how similar these teams have been over the course of the regular season and playoffs. Remove the club names, and the numbers suggest a tight final is on tap - one much closer than the odds indicate.

The Canadiens are also currently playing far above those numbers. Montreal owns a playoff-best 56.06% share of the expected goals at five-on-five since Game 5 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, getting the better of a Vegas Golden Knights team that's typically dominant in that regard. Montreal is peaking at the ideal time, playing its best hockey when it matters most.

Tampa's largest statistical edges in the regular season were in save percentage and on special teams. Those gaps have narrowed considerably in the playoffs. Carey Price has matched Andrei Vasilevskiy every step of the way; splitting hairs over who's been the better netminder is an exercise in futility.

Vasilevskiy leads the playoffs in goals saved above average and goals saved above expected. Price sits second in both. But that says more about their respective defense corps than about the goaltenders themselves. Vasilevskiy has faced 154 high-danger shots against compared to Price's 120, and while their save percentages are virtually identical, the greater quality allowed by Tampa has sparked Vasilevskiy's edge in goals saved above expected. The bottom line: Two of the world's best netminders are both at the top of their game right now, and they're about to go toe to toe.

Tampa's other regular-season edge - special teams - could be the key in this series when the Lightning's power play clashes with Montreal's penalty kill. The defending champions are clicking at nearly 40% on the man advantage and have scored at least one power-play goal in 11 playoff games. They've had six contests with at least two power-play goals and have tallied three on three occasions - once in each series.

That said, special teams can be streaky, and the Lightning came back down to earth slightly in the semifinals, failing to register a power-play goal in four of their last five games against the Islanders. They now face the hottest special-teams unit of the postseason: a Canadiens penalty kill that hasn't allowed a power-play goal since Game 5 of Round 1 and has killed off 30 straight penalties since.

Nikita Kucherov's status bears monitoring here. If his injury limits his effectiveness, it will be a significant blow for a Tampa power play that's been especially lethal with two dangerous shooters on the half-wall. The play on which Kucherov appeared to suffer the injury suggests a broken rib (or ribs) is likely. Such an ailment takes weeks to heal and would certainly limit his effectiveness. Without Kucherov in the regular season, Tampa was ninth in power-play efficiency at only 22.2%. He logged just 16:29 of ice time in Game 7 against New York, and if he's not at full strength against Montreal, the Lightning's 37.7% success rate in the playoffs will likely plummet.

Of all the matchups in this series, the special teams battle feels like the most significant. If the Canadiens can't keep the Lightning power play at bay, this final could be over in a hurry. But if Montreal's penalty kill stays hot, the underdogs have a real shot at the upset - because they aren't at all out of their depth at five-on-five.

The Canadiens have been a strong five-on-five team for the last several years, ranking third in expected goals for percentage and Corsi For percentage over the past three seasons. That hasn't always translated to overall success for a team held back by the league's 25th-ranked PDO - a harbinger for positive regression. Part of Montreal's low five-on-five shooting percentage can be attributed to an absence of quality scorers up front. While the recent uptick has been a long time coming, it's largely a product of the arrivals of Tyler Toffoli and Caufield and the emergence of Nick Suzuki.

In addition to a low PDO, special teams and goaltending previously plagued the Canadiens. That's all changed over the past month, with a new coaching staff effecting positive changes and Price rediscovering his Vezina form. So while Montreal's playoff run is largely viewed as an underdog story, there's plenty of evidence to prompt a reframing of this team's success. The ability to drive play has always been there, but only recently have the rest of the pieces fallen into place - Ducharme and general manager Marc Bergevin deserve a ton of credit for that.

The continued development of Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi and the experienced play of Phillip Danault and Eric Staal have also provided the Canadiens with the center depth they've craved for years. That newfound depth gives them a real chance to match up with Tampa's forward corps.

On the back end, there's very little separating these teams. Tampa does well to spread out its blue-line talent, but Erik Cernak has struggled, Jan Rutta doesn't belong on the top pairing, and Victor Hedman is clearly operating at less than full strength. Montreal's third pairing can be a liability, but the team has competently sheltered the duo, with a top four that's been nothing short of excellent carrying the bulk of the burden.

The Canadiens have already slain multiple giants in these playoffs. The Lightning - a team with elite star power, depth, goaltending, and coaching - are the greatest threat of all, but they aren't exactly Goliath to Montreal's David. There's a clear recipe for success for the Canadiens in this series, with goaltending and special teams the key ingredients. It will require near-flawless execution from all involved, but they can finish the job.

Pick: Canadiens (+220)

Alex Moretto is theScore's supervising editor of sports betting. Find him on Twitter @alexjmoretto.

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Stanley Cup Final preview: Are Canadiens poised to dethrone Lightning?
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