BetOnline patrons would probably agree that there have been few better sports stories in this century like the Montreal Canadiens and their drive to the brink of winning the Stanley Cup this season. Undeniably the league schedule, adjusted for purposes of the pandemic, has created a very unusual set of circumstances.
And the Habs have been on the butt end of a lot of criticism that was directed to a realignment of the NHL, which placed all the Canadian teams in the same division. Theirs was supposed to be the weakest of the four divisions that were instantly formed, and they earned the last ticket as the fourth place team in that division, as well as the playoff team that had accumulated the least number of points.
And to make this whole thing even more unlikely is that the Canadiens are on their third head coach. They fired head coach Claude Julien after 18 games, and interim coach Dominique Ducharme actually had a worse record. After two games of the series against Vegas, Ducharme had a positive COVID test and had to go into isolation. That brought assistant Luke Richardson into the picture as yet another interim coach (Ducharme may be able to return for Game 3 of this series).
And so the Canadiens are prepared to cast their lot against the defending Stanley Cup champions. But they do so not as an underdog playing “David” to the Tampa Bay Lightning's “Goliath,” but as a team that is playing something close to a dominant brand of hockey.
This best-of-seven series gets started on Monday, and those BetOnline customers who have been following Montreal's journey closely might indeed find some value in the odds to win the series:
Tampa Bay Lightning -260
Montreal Canadiens +220
The Canadiens had to do some hustling to vault themselves into a playoff spot over the final two weeks of the season, and then appeared to be out of luck when they went down 3-1 to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But they roared back with three straight wins to take that series and add to the seemingly eternal suffering of Leafs fans. And then they turned around and swept the Winnipeg Jets in four games.
Everyone was patting them on the back for getting that far, but they continued the magic carpet ride by eliminating the Vegas Golden Knights in six games.
And so here they are.
Tampa Bay finished in third place in the South Division, although the sense was that they had yet to play their best hockey. To prove that, they plowed through the Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes, then got by the New York Islanders in a dramatic seven-game series to punch their ticket to the finals.
There are obviously many key factors here. One of them is the presence of Nikita Kucherov, who won the league's MVP award (the Hart Trophy) two years ago but did not play at all in this regular season. He was kept on the long-term injured list, which meant he didn't have to count against the salary cap, but the Bolts were able to activate him for the playoffs.
Kucherov was cross-checked in Game 6 of the series against the Islanders and had to leave the ice. But he returned in Game 7. He leads all NHL players in assists (22) and total points (27) in this current playoff season.
Ordinarily Kucherov might be clearly Tampa Bay's top contender to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (MVP of the playoffs). But the Lightning have the hottest goal-scorer in the playoffs as well. Brayden Point went scoreless in Game 6 against Vegas, but prior to that he had tallied a goal in nine straight games.
Montreal's strength is its ability to beat back the opposition's efforts to apply pressure deep in their own end. And one real asset for them has been the depth and balance in their forward corps. All four lines have been strong, and that can create some matchup problems for opponents. Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper might employ his “11-7” strategy, which involves switching line combinations throughout the game, which most teams can't really prepare for.
Like any playoff series, the goaltenders have a chance to be the stars. And they have been absolutely outstanding thus far. Tampa Bay has the considerable talents of Andrei Vasilevskiy to draw upon. The 2019 Vezina Trophy winner has posted a 1.99 goals-against average and ,936 save percentage in the postseason. Montreal's Carey Price won the Vezina and Hart trophies in 2015, and shook off a so-so regular season to be a real playoff stopper, with a 2.02 GAA and .934 save percentage.
Still, what this series might come down to is the “special teams” play. The Lightning have scored on 37.7% of their power plays in the postseason. Out of Kucherov's 27 playoff points, 17 have come in power play situations. Seven of Point's 14 playoff goals have come with the man advantage.
Well, the Canadiens have completely killed off penalties. And we man COMPLETELY. They have gone 13 games without allowing a power play goal, encompassing 30 opportunities for opponents.
If Montreal is able to take away that particular Tampa Bay strength, they can solve the final piece to this puzzle. That's why we are willing to take the +220 price (pardon the pun) on them in the series, and even more specifically….
CANADIENS IN 7 GAMES (4-3)
Which, we might add, is posted at +650 at BetOnline, where they have a multitude of props for every game of the Stanley Cup Finals, along with “Live Betting” on the games in progress, and Odds Boosters for explosive payouts on pre-selected parlays every day……. And if you've got some Bitcoin, you can open an account and get into the action right away!