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2021 Stanley Cup Final preview: Bolts are heavily favored to go back-to-back

The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in hockey, and the Montreal Canadiens are one of the hottest. Who walks away with Lord Stanley?

Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates the team’s 1-0 win against the New York Islanders in Game Seven of the NHL Stanley Cup Semifinals during the 2021 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at Amalie Arena on June 25, 2021 in Tampa, Florida.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Tonight the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning drop the puck on a best-of-seven series to determine the Stanley Cup champions for 2021. For one team it’s a chance to bring the Cup back to a nation that yearns for professional hockey success. For the other, it’s a chance to transform a championship team into a dynasty.

It’s been a rough 28 years for Canada, as no team from north of the 49th parallel has been able to bring home the trophy since the Habs of Patrick Roy, Vincent Damphousse and Kirk Muller in 1993. And they remain a big underdog to bring back the bowl against the sun-kissed superstars of Florida’s most hockey-mad city.

Odds to win the Stanley Cup at DraftKings Sportsbook

Montreal Canadiens (+225): 52% of handle, 56% of bets

Tampa Bay Lightning (-275): 48% of handle, 44% of bets

This is hockey where puck luck and momentum are real things, but the Lightning are clearly the more talented team. Despite playing the entire regular season without former league MVP Nikita Kucherov, the Bolts got him back for the playoffs (despite the protestations of salary cap counters) and he’s returned to his mastery of the game in the offensive zone. Although they outscored the New York Islanders by nine goals in the Stanley Cup Semifinals, it did take the Bolts all seven games to shut down the Nassau Coliseum forever.

The Canadiens entered as the worst team in the 16-team Stanley Cup playoffs, finishing behind two clubs in regular season points that didn’t even make the tournament. But they are flying right now in front of one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Carey Price (12-5, .934 save percentage, 0.697 goals saved above expected per game), who has been a wall so far.

The problem for Montreal is the consensus best goalkeeper on the planet is Andrei Vasilevskiy (12-6, .936 save percentage, 1.260 goals saved above expected per game), and he’s between the pipes on the other side. For a Canadiens team that can struggle to score, it will be a challenge to go from the jumbled mess of a goalie situation for the Vegas Golden Knights to the best puck stopper in the world.

The Bolts had captain Steven Stamkos miss half the season, and Kucherov miss all of it, but returned both healthy for the playoffs. Add them to former Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman, rising superstar Brayden Point, and Harvard’s Alex Killorn, and you have an historically great power play unit. They putting a puck away 0.55 times per two-minute man advantage in the Playoffs, with every goal scored via just their first unit.

How good are these five? Here’s a list of the NHL’s overall leading scorers in the playoffs so far from MoneyPuck.com:

Despite the brilliance of Price, the Canadiens have no chance in this series if they take penalties. So far in the playoffs they’ve mostly stayed out of the box despite their grinding style.

Tyler Toffoli leads all Habs with 14 points in 17 playoff games, with linemate Nick Suzuki (13) and Cole Caufield (9) right behind him on the scoring list. This is actually the second line, but they’ve been the best since the Cup run has started.

Both teams have played about an equal number of minutes including overtime in their march to the Final, with Tampa scoring 33 times and allowing 26. Montreal has scored 27 times, but conceded 29. And something for bettors to keep an eye on: the Canadiens have four shorthanded goals in the playoffs. Forcing turnovers and forechecking could be crucial in trying to slow down Tampa with a man advantage, and the Lightning have tallied twice down a man as well.

This is a more difficult season to handicap for hockey fans than most, as the only inter-divisional play of the entire year didn’t occur until the Stanley Cup semifinal round. But on eye test the North Division was the worst in hockey this year, and the Habs barely qualified for the playoffs in it.

But that’s meaningless now, and the youthful exuberance of Montreal should be fearless in the face of a veteran Lightning squad that is the NHL’s most talented team and has been down this road before. The series odds look pretty correct to us.

But they still have to play the games, and puck luck is real. Game 1 is tonight at 8:00 p.m. in Tampa, and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network.

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