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2021 Stanley Cup Final: Can Tampa join Penguins as back-to-back champs?

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The Lightning look to accomplish what only Pittsburgh as in the salary cap era

New York Islanders v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Seven Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

My series prediction are 9-5 this playoff, which for this wild and unpredictable playoff feels pretty impressive.

The Tampa Bay Lightning have made it to the final, which isn’t particularly surprising. They are an incredibly impressive team that features arguably the best goalie in the league, the best all-around defenseman in the league and some of the most skilled forwards in the league. Add in more quality depth and it’s a very strong team that is looking to join the 2016-17 Penguins as the only team to repeat in the salary cap era.

Tampa making it this far is impressive — they join only Detroit 2008+09, Pittsburgh 2008+09 and 2016+17 as the only teams of the last 15 years to make the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back years. Winning is incredibly hard and sustaining success in the current NHL has so much parity that we just don’t see the same teams (NYI and Edmonton in the ‘80s, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Jersey and Colorado in the ‘90s/early 2000s) go deep in the playoffs seemingly every single year.

If Tampa is the unsurprising team bulling their way in with talent, the Montreal Canadiens are their polar opposite.

As the fairly famous stat making the rounds goes, the Canadiens finished just 18th in the NHL in points this season. If they played in any other division, they wouldn’t have made the playoff with just 59 points. As I pointed out in the last playoff round preview, I still can’t get over they fired their coach mid-season and the new coach, Dominique Ducharme, only had a 15-16-7 record in the regular season. He tested positive for COVID and has been isolation, with Montreal having a winning record without him, which I just find truly hilarious.

Montreal did make the playoffs and are truly a “peaked at the right time” kind of team. They have found away to defeat three teams (Toronto, Winnipeg, Vegas), all of whom are pretty strong themselves. And there’s some evidence that this Canadiens’ team isn’t a fluke or a total joke, they’re maybe, kinda, somehow...actually good?

Interesting stuff there, with the always crucial “what will teams try to copy and replicate from this Cinderella run?”

In a similar genre is the paralyzing fear that teams will learn the “wrong” lesson if the Habs won the Cup this year, and focus on getting bigger and tougher and blah blah blah. Guess what - teams learn the wrong lesson after every team wins the Cup. The Lightning won last year with dynamic star performances and the “lesson” was that it was all because they were big and hard to play against. The Blues won the year before and it was because they were big and hard to play against. The Capitals won the year before that and it was because they were big and hard to play against. The Penguins won on skill and speed the year before that and even they somehow concluded that they needed to be bigger and harder to play against. If the NHL is going to change its tactical preferences, it’s not going to be because a certain more fun team wins the Cup (and certainly not the Lightning, Isles, or Golden Knights).

Montreal does have a monstrously-sized top four defensive group that they leaned on, and having a Hall of Fame goalie at the height of his powers to back them up never hurts.

Up front, the Canadiens have been bolstered by somewhat recent additions of Tyler Toffoli, Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki infusing some skill. Corey Perry keeps clawing his way to play meaningful games too.

Unlike some other Cinderella stories coughIslanderscough, Montreal hasn’t lived exclusively on goaltending, lucky bounces, fortunate referee decisions and other random, variable elements of the game that are left up to chance. The Habs are a very good 5v5 team, capable of playing with anyone in the league.

On one hand, they’re “not that good” of a team — they only won 24 out of 56 games this season! On the other hand, they’re red hot now and “good enough” to have stayed alive to this point in the playoffs.

Can the Cinderella story have a happy ending to bring Canada the Stanley Cup back for the first time in almost 30 years? Or will the Lightning prove to be too strong, too deep and have the team to match and surpass Montreal? In many ways, this matchup isn’t totally dis-similar from last year’s SCF where Tampa went up against a Cinderella Dallas Stars team that was a big under-dog but found ways to win.

In the end, it’s been a zany and a crazy season. Why not cap it off with an outcome that no one saw coming a few months ago? Montreal in 7