Lightning Strike: How Big Is Tampa Bay’s Edge Over Montreal Heading Into the Stanley Cup Final?
Tampa Bay has been a dominant team all season, while Montreal has turned it on in the playoffs. How much does the regular season success matter?
“You can throw out the regular-season records – this is the Stanley Cup Final!”
Well, not quite.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, the defending Cup champs, had a .670 points percentage in the NHL’s 2021 “regular” season – far better than the .527 mark of the team they’ll face in the Final, the upstart Montreal Canadiens. While the narrative might be that regular-season records are not a strong indicator of who will win the Final, history suggests otherwise.
Since the NHL’s 1967-68 expansion, there have been 13 previous Finals in which the disparity in the two clubs’ regular-season points percentage was at least 140 points. Only two of the 13 underdogs pulled off the upset. The 1995 New Jersey Devils had a regular season points differential of -.187 compared to the Red Wings, but managed an impressive four-game sweep, with the last two games being decisive 5-2 victories. The only other team to win with such a differential was the 1980 New York Islanders, who used an overtime goal in Game 6 to down the Philadelphia Flyers four games to two. The Lightning enter the Stanley Cup Final this year with a regular-season point percentage .143 higher than the Canadiens, so Montreal would seem to be a heavy underdog.
The Canadiens’ .527 mark is particularly striking, especially in this era of 3-on-3 overtimes, shootouts and three-point games. Montreal ranked 18th among the NHL’s 31 teams in the regular season, and no team with a points percentage under .530 has won the Cup since 1949! That season, the Maple Leafs (.475) dispatched the Bruins (.550) and Red Wings (.625), and they did it with ease, losing only once in the two best-of-7 series.
But since then, no club with so poor a regular-season record has taken home the Stanley Cup. Teams with a regular-season points percentage under .530 are 0-13 in the Final since 1950. And no team with a regular-season points percentage that low has even made a Stanley Cup Final since 1994.
Team Points Pct Series Result 1950 New York Rangers .479 Lost to Detroit, 4-3 1951 Montreal Canadiens .464 Lost to Toronto, 4-1 1953 Boston Bruins .493 Lost to Montreal, 4-1 1958 Boston Bruins .498 Lost to Montreal, 4-2 1959 Toronto Maple Leafs .464 Lost to Montreal, 4-1 1961 Detroit Red Wings .471 Lost to Chicago, 4-2 1964 Detroit Red Wings .507 Lost to Toronto, 4-3 1966 Detroit Red Wings .529 Lost to Montreal, 4-2 1968 St. Louis Blues .473 Lost to Montreal, 4-0 1982 Vancouver Canucks .481 Lost to New York Islanders, 4-0 1991 Minnesota North Stars .425 Lost to Pittsburgh, 4-2 1993 Los Angeles Kings .524 Lost to Montreal, 4-1 1994 Vancouver Canucks .506 Lost to New York Rangers, 4-3
Well, perhaps the Canadiens have this in their favor: they’ll be up against a Lightning team that was extended to seven games in the semifinal by the New York Islanders. The Canadiens wrapped up their series win over the Vegas Golden Knights in six games, so it’s a small advantage for the Habs, right?
Not according to history. In the last 20 years, teams coming off seven-game semifinals (or conference finals) have gone 10-1 in the Stanley Cup Final. The last team to lose in that situation was the 2015 Lightning – who were defeated by a team, the Chicago Blackhawks, also coming off a seven-game conference final.
In each of the last seven instances in which the conference finals/semifinals did not go the same number of games, the team that played more games in that series went on to win the Cup.
The Habs’ hopes ride heavily on goaltender Carey Price, who is working on a spectacular postseason: a .934 save percentage and 2.02 GAA. His counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, has almost identical numbers in the playoffs: .936 and 1.99. This will truly be a matchup of hot goaltenders – just the fifth Cup Final since 1955-56 – when save percentage was first tracked – in which both netminders enter the series with playoff save percentages of .930 or higher. The last time it happened was 2013, when Tuuka Rask entered with a save percentage of .943 and Corey Crawford entered with a save percentage of .934.
There should be some intrigue in the series regarding what happens early in games. Tampa Bay is 12-2 in this postseason when scoring the first goal and 0-4 in games in which the opponent scores first. The last team to win the Stanley Cup without overcoming a 1-0 deficit in any of its playoff victories was the 1960 Canadiens, who needed only eight postseason victories to claim the Cup.
On the other side, the Canadiens have outscored their opponents by a 14-4 count in this year’s postseason. They are 8-1 in games in which they score at least one first-period goal, with wins in the last seven such games. Montreal has been outscored by a combined 32-24 in periods two and three but is 5-1 in overtime contests.
Programming assistance from Bryan Holcomb, Tom Paquette, Sam Hovland and Tim Bazer.