The defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning host the Cinderella story Montreal Canadiens Monday night in Game 1 of the NHL’s championship showdown.
From a television ratings standpoint, perhaps a final best-of-7 series between the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs — two of the biggest markets in the league — would have been a surefire winner for the league.
But the last series of the 2021 NHL Playoffs has all the makings of a dynamite series.
Many Maple Leafs fans are still grumbling over the team’s collapse at the hands of their arch-rivals, and rightfully so, as Toronto was an overtime goal away from eliminating the Habs in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
But Montreal — the last team to qualify for the post-season — won that game, as well as Game 6 in OT, before dispatching Toronto in seven games.
Les Bleu, Blanc et Rouge then continued to sweep the Winnipeg Jets before bouncing the Vegas Golden Knights in six.
The Canadiens have been underdogs in each of their previous three playoff series and that will also be the case against Tampa.
The reigning champs ousted the Florida Panthers in round one, dumped the Central Division-leading Carolina Hurricanes in the second round, and are fresh off celebrating a hard-fought victory in a seven-game slugfest against the New York Islanders.
Tampa Bay is a much better team than Montreal on paper, but as we have seen time and again in this year’s playoffs, that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.
The Canadiens have been on an incredible run, especially since Game 5 versus Toronto, and goaltender Carey Price has carried the club on his back.
But it hasn’t all been No. 31.
Youngsters Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and rookie sensation Cole Caufield have scored big goals for the club and veterans Shea Weber, Tyler Toffoli, Phillip Danault and Joel Armia have shown their mettle.
Mind you — and this will sound like sour grapes coming from this Leafs fan — the Habs have taken full advantage of some good fortune over the last few weeks, too.
Not having to worry about Toronto captain John Tavares (injury), Winnipeg’s leading scorer Mark Scheifele (suspension) and to a lesser extent Vegas’ first-line centre Chandler Stephenson (injury) for most, if not all, of their playoff run certainly helped Montreal’s chances.
But hey, one player does not make a team, and the Habs have proven to be a complete unit in the post-season.
The Canadiens have a nearly impeccable defensive system that has nullified the opposition’s best players, have a smothering penalty-killing unit that has not allowed a power-play goal since May 25, and have received a Conn Smythe-worthy performance from Price.
Montreal is more than worthy to be in the position they find themselves in, but what are their chances against the favoured Lightning?
Tampa Bay is trying to become the first team since the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 and 2017 to win back-to-back Stanley Cups and they have looked incredible this post-season.
The top five point-getters in the playoffs are all Lightning players, including Nikita Kucherov in the No. 1 spot, despite missing just about all of Game 6 against the Islanders with an undisclosed injury.
Teammate Brayden Point scored in nine consecutive playoff games, one off the all-time record, goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has a playoff-leading four shutouts, and grizzled vets like captain Steven Stamkos, defenceman Victor Hedman and Alex Killorn have helped carry the load.
If I’m putting down a wager, I would play the percentages and put my money on Tampa Bay to win this series. The Bolts are battle-tested, they have been here before, and they know what it takes to claim the Cup.
But this Habs team has some serious magic going on, a mojo or dash of pixie dust that is undeniable, and a level of confidence that has never been higher.
That might be why my gut tells me the Montreal Canadiens will be the first Canadian NHL team to raise the Stanley Cup since the Habs did it in 1993.
Prediction: Montreal over Tampa Bay in 7 games.
Rick Zamperin is the assistant program, news and senior sports director at Global News Radio 900 CHML.
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