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A David vs Goliath Series

Finals series

After a year filled with uncertainty around the National Hockey League, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it seems we have finally gotten to the light at the end of the tunnel, as the Stanley Cup Finals are set to kick off Monday night at Amalie Centre in sunny Florida. This heavyweight battle is unlike one we have seen in recent years, as it pits a supreme underdog against a powerhouse roster that has the weapons to dismantle any club they face. Yes, I am talking about the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively.

This series is Tyson vs Douglas. Both teams have gone through three rounds of blood, sweat, and tears to get to this point, so it would only be right that we analyze how each team got here, what sets them apart from the rest, and the keys to their success the coming round. Without further ado, let’s jump right into it.

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When looking at both teams from afar, they look like opposites. On one side of the spectrum, you have the Montreal Canadiens, a team who have proven the very point I have been trying to express in the past couple of years; hockey analysts don’t know squat at the end of the day. The team that is lovingly known in Montreal as “Les Bleu-Blanc-Rouge” we’re never supposed to be at this stage of the playoffs. They were supposed to get swept in the first round by the Toronto Maple Leafs.

TSN analyst and former Calgary Flames General Manager Craig Button even went so far as to say that this team didn’t even stand a chance at winning a single game against their neighbors from Ontario. Alas, the Habs pulled off one of the biggest upsets in sports in the past couple of years and beat the Maple Leafs after being down 3-1 earlier in the series. Box number one has been checked.

The Habs got through the Maple Leafs against all odds

Their next opponent was another fellow North Division rival, the Winnipeg Jets. Heading into this series, the odds were stacked against Montreal again, with most NHL pundits counting them out before the puck even dropped. What did the Habs go out and do? They dominantly swept Winnipeg; the series wasn’t even close.

Fuelled by a Mark Scheifele suspension that led to depth forward Jake Evans having to sit out the rest of the series, the Canadiens powered through, relying on their defensive tactics, as well as their all-world goaltender, to lead the way for them. Alas, we have crowned them kings of the North Division and officially booked their spot in round 3 against their toughest opponent yet; the Vegas Golden Knights. They had marked box number two off.

Montreal would end up sweeping Winnipeg to go on and face the Vegas Golden Knights

In the Golden Knights, the Canadiens were facing a powerhouse from the Honda West Division that they hadn’t played against all season long. Characterized by a high-flying offense, heavy-hitting players across the line-up, a depth that would make any NHL general manager envious, and two world-class goaltenders guarding the crease, this Vegas team seemed to have it all.

Once again, just like the others, this was supposed to be the series that Montreal finally met its demise. I even had my neighbor, a Bruins fan, congratulate me on the Habs getting so far, but letting me know they wouldn’t get through the Golden Knights.

One thing you must know about me is that I am a very honest person. I don’t like to sugarcoat things; I say it how it is and do not mind if people get offended by the truth. I’ve always found that this is the best way to go about life and what helps me feel a sense of righteousness. Now philosophies aside, when I looked at the “on-paper” matchup between these two teams, everything in me wanted to say that the Golden Knights were going to take this series; and how couldn’t I? This team was built to go the distance; they had it all.

Vegas had won a hard-fought battle against their division opponents, the Colorado Avalanche

Everything in me wanted to say that Vegas would win, but I couldn’t do that because they do not play hockey on paper. You do not win if you have the best matchup on paper. You win by going out there, joining forces with your teammates, coming together as a collective unit, and doing anything it takes to make sure you are one goal ahead of the other team at the end of the game.

Looking at how the Canadiens played throughout the playoffs, it was easy to see that they were living and breathing by this “creed.” When I told this to myself, I already knew what the outcome of the series was. No boasting or bragging went on about how I knew my boyhood team would prevail. Instead, silent confidence enveloped me.

I stayed locked in on my television throughout the series, keeping my promise; however, I had to watch only two regular-time periods (you know how superstitions can be). Game after game, the belief around the team grew. Even when we dropped the first game to them at home, we still believed. When Nic Roy (a favorite of mine on the Golden Knights) scored that overtime heartbreaker to send it back to Vegas tied at two games apiece, we still believed.

Why? Because the Habs had this hunger in their eyes, this X-factor can’t be discussed in terms of sports statistics. When I would watch the games, I could tell that they wanted it more than their American counterparts. The Golden Knights often came out sluggish, not finishing checks, having a hard time by-passing the defense, and making it easy on Carey Price by not causing havoc around the net. These factors played a huge role in Montreal booking their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1993 – six years before yours truly was born. Box number three checked.

Josh Anderson scored a huge goal in the 3rd round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs

I don’t know what it was like back in 1993, but if it is anything like the atmosphere here in the city in 2021, boy am I sad that I missed it. In a year where so much was lost because of the Covid-19 pandemic- lives, freedoms, social interactions, routine- the Canadiens making the finals has unified a city that has had its social aspect taken away from it over the past year and a half. Although there is immense pride surrounding our hockey club, we know they are about to face their toughest task up to date.

In Tampa Bay, you get a team looking to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions and build a dynasty. When you look at them on paper, this team is absolutely stacked. Just look at some of their players, Nikita Kucherov, for instance, who is a couple of years removed from scoring 128 points in the regular season.

Nikita Kucherov, back from a season-long hip injury, has been tearing up the playoffs (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

This man suffers an injury, goes through hip surgery, misses the entire NHL regular season, then tears up the playoffs by potting home 27 points, leading all playoff skaters. Or how about Brayden Point, the man who recently put up a nine-game goal streak, one game shy of breaking Reggie Leach’s all-time playoff record. Let’s not forget Steven Stamkos, who has aged in terms of years, but always seems to bring a certain energy and leadership to the Bolts night-in and night-out.

Steering away from the forwards, let’s talk defencemen. You can’t say Tampa Bay Lightning without Sweden native Victor Hedman, who leads all defensemen with 18 points in these playoffs, and is the anchor to this team’s back-end. David Savard, acquired at the trade deadline from the Columbus Blue Jackets, has stepped into his role on this team beautifully, bringing a gritty yet graceful presence to the ice that serves as a calming factor to the team. The last line of defense is none other than Vezina winning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is on track to capture his second Vezina Trophy this year at the NHL awards.

With all this in mind, I want to cover the keys that would secure a Tampa Bay repeat; depth scoring and speed. The Lighting has some of the best depth I have ever seen in my 15+ years watching hockey. Forwards Anthony Cirelli, Yanni Gourde, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, and Blake Coleman all make major impacts for this team every single game.

With Montreal playing defensively-minded throughout these playoffs, and with Carey Price having his best performance of his career so far, the only way the Lightning can dominate the Canadiens is by having all four lines going 150% at all times. This means that the Lightning will have to use their speed when entering the offensive zone to frustrate the Habs D-Men. A strong forecheck, couple by scoring depth firing on all cylinders is a surefire way for the Lightning to drown “Les Canadiens.”

When it comes to what Montreal must do to capture the Stanley Cup, two words come to mind; physicality and Carey Price. There is no way to get around it; the Lightning are a fast team, not just in terms of foot-speed but also in decision-making. They house some of the smartest players globally, who can adapt to any play at the drop of a dime. This, coupled with their foot-speed, is the reason so many pundits have the Lightning repeating as Stanley Cup Champions.

The Lightning are looking to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions

The only way to stop this is by laying the body – HARD! The Canadiens house some big bodies across their lineup, with names such as Josh Anderson, Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Jeff Petry, and Joel Edmundson coming to mind. These players offer a presence of physicality that many teams would love to have. If Montreal wants to stifle the speed of the Lighting, they need to be severely out-hitting them every single night.

This is the only way to stop an object traveling at high amounts of speed – by bumping into it. This will disrupt Tampa Bay’s speed and force them to adapt and think of a new game plan. If this occurs, the Canadiens can stick to the game-plan they have used all playoffs long and use it to their advantage.

The second key to victory for them is the play of their beloved goalie Carey Price. The Anahim Lake, B.C native, is enjoying an absolutely stellar playoff, posting a .934 save percentage, as well as a 2.02 goals-against average. All this is even more impressive when considering that he hasn’t exactly played against scrubs in these playoffs.

He has had to face the young guns in Toronto, including Rocket Richard Trophy winner Auston Matthews and his teammates Mitch Marner and William Nylander. In the Winnipeg series, he faced a barrage of shots from Kyle Connor and Nik Ehlers. The Vegas series served as his toughest test, coming up against Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty and offensive defensemen such as Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo.

Every single test put in front of him; Price has passed it. Now he faces the biggest test of his career in names such as Kucherov, Point, Stamkos, and Cirelli. If he can keep playing the way he has and stifle Tampa’s big-guns on offense, the Canadiens take this series. He is the sole reason they are in this position, and he is the sole reason they have any chance of winning. If Montreal wants to see a Stanley Cup parade in two weeks, we need Carey Price to be on his “A-Game.”

Carey Price needs to remain stoic in order to lead the Habs to victory (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

The love story between me and the team that is known here in Quebec as “Les Habitants” started way back in 2006 when I was just seven years old. For the past 15 years, I’ve ridden all the highs and lows that have come with being a Canadiens fan, and never would I have thought I would be seeing them in the Stanley Cup Finals. Monday night serves as a dream come true not just for the players involved but the city as a whole. Here’s to a great series, and best of luck to both teams.

Go Habs Go!

Michael Vidakis

michaelvidakis@gmail.com

@VidakisMichael

 

 

 

 

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