What a ride it has been this year. The Montreal Canadiens were viewed as massive underdogs heading into their first round matchup against the Toronto Maple Leafs (who were then the favorites to win the North Division). Then they beat them in seven games. Then they were massive underdogs heading into their second round matchup against the Winnipeg Jets. Then they swept them. Then they were massive underdogs heading into their third round matchup against the Vegas Golden Knights — who were just coming off of beating the Stanley Cup-favorite Colorado Avalanche team in five games. Then they beat them in six games.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were also somewhat viewed as underdogs in their first two series — against the Florida Panthers first and then the Carolina Hurricanes. Not because the Lightning are not good, but rather because the Panthers and Hurricanes had very strong teams. Only this last series against the Islanders were they the true favorites, and even then, they only won in seven games.
So here we are. Two teams remaining. One Stanley Cup. Let’s take a look at the matchup.
Montreal Canadiens v. Tampa Bay Lightning
In the last round, I did correctly predict the Lightning to win their series, but I predicted the Vegas Golden Knights to win unless Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens continued to play like his early 2010s self. Well, he did. Andrei Vasilevsky of the Tampa Bay Lightning also played lights out against the New York Islanders in the previous series.
So, this matchup has the potential to be a goaltending battle for the ages. Andrei Vasilevsky is currently sitting at a 14.49 GSAx in 18 games, with Carey Price at a 9.02 in 17 games. Both are first and second respectively during the playoffs in GSAx. They’re also first and second in GSAA (8.04 and 7.11), xGA, SA, and so on. Point is, they’ve both been exceptional and a large part of why their teams have made it as far as they have.
As much as the narrative seems to be around Price and how he is the leading Conn Smythe candidate, Vasilevsky has straight up been better in pretty much every statistic that can be measured or calculated. Sure, Price is the Smythe leader for the Canadiens, but Vasilevsky is certainly the Smythe leader for the Lightning and overall. I think Vasilevsky will continue to outplay Price once they go head to head.
Now looking at each respective team, it’s easy to see how the Tampa Bay Lightning will be the heavy favorite where the Canadiens will be massive underdogs once again. The Lightning lead the Canadiens in Goalie Goals Above Expected/60, Shooting Goals Above Expected/60, Shot Rate Differential/60, and Goal Differential/60. The only one in the same category of statistics in which the Canadiens lead the Lightning is Shot Quality Differential/60.
When it comes to expected goals, shooting, and Corsi, the Lightning have a leg up on the Canadiens, but only by a hair in each of those categories. For example, in Corsi Differential/60, the Lightning are ninth and the Canadiens are tenth. And for expected goals, the Canadiens are actually the one up by a hair on the Lightning.
Continuing with this, the Canadiens are only a little better in terms of faceoffs, but the Lightning are better when it comes to drawing penalties in the face of taking them. The teams are exactly the same when it comes to icings taken versus given.
On paper, this Lightning team should easily beat the Canadiens. It’s the same core that pretty handedly won the Cup last year — Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevky, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, Anthony Cirelli, Yanni Gourde, and so on. This time they have their captain, Steven Stamkos too. The Lightning team has proven they are the best, and the players on the team are some of the best in the league Then you look at the Canadiens, and there are a lot of unproven rising stars — Cole Caufield, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jake Evans, Jonathan Drouin, and so on. Players like Carey Price, Tyler Toffoli, Shea Weber, and Brendan Gallagher do give this team veteran depth, but those veterans aren’t as good as the Lightning core.
And yet, the Canadiens have made it this far, with advanced statistics incredibly similar to the defending Stanley Cup champions. Who will win? Well, every round I have predicted against the Montreal Canadiens — so why stop here? I predict the Tampa Bay Lightning to win their second Cup in as many years in seven games.
Given similar statistics, I think this will come down to Price v. Vasilevsky. Vasilevsky has been much better than Price so far, so I think he will continue to play much better. It is possible that Vasilevsky slows down, but it’s also very possible Price does too. For that reason, I think the better goalie wins this duel, and that’ll be Vasilevsky.