Annnnnd we’re off! Game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final is in the books, as the Canadiens and Lightning got familiar with one another down in Tampa on Monday night. Put aside all the previews, predictions and narratives because now it’s time for the next four-to-seven games to determine whose names get etched on that big, sexy trophy.
There’s been plenty of talk about the Canadiens’ unlikely Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final, but most pundits (and Vegas) seem to agree that the Lightning are the much better team in this series. And yes, those pundits (and Vegas) have underestimated Montreal plenty of times already this postseason, but Monday’s series opener seemed to provide some early validation to the idea that the Lightning are in a different class.
Game 1 finished with a 5-1 score, and it very much felt like an appropriate box score given the way things played out. The Bolts looked strong top-to-bottom and they gave the Canadiens very little to work with. On the flip side, Montreal wasn’t tight enough and it provided too many openings to a team that absolutely does not need any charity.
Let’s get to some takeaways:
Busy night for Ben Chiarot
If there was one guy who was constantly around the action on Monday night, it was Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always great news for Montreal.
Chariot had himself a busy night at both ends of the ice and was both the benefactor and victim of puck luck. He was responsible for the lone Habs goal – one produced via a wild showcase of bounces, as Chiarot’s point shot deflected off two Lightning players’ skates before beating Andrei Vasilevskiy. A classic pinball tally ...
He nearly got another goal when his point shot deflected off the toe of an official and then hit the post.
But, at the other end of the ice, he also was burned by some unfortunate bounces that resulted in offense for the Lightning. On Tampa’s second goal, he blocked a Barclay Goodrow shot on the rush that deflected straight to the stick of Blake Coleman, who then quickly fired the puck past Carey Price.
Then, the Bolts’ fourth goal came after Chiarot put the puck into his own net. He used his glove to swat a centering attempt from Nikita Kucherov, then knocked the puck out of mid-air and over the shoulder of Price.
Overall, it was a tough night for Chiarot. He was on the ice for three goals against at 5v5 (four total), took a penalty and held an expected goals rate of 26.9 percent (lowest of any Montreal skater).
Montreal’s youth get overpowered
As we’ve seen at several different points this postseason, Montreal's young nucleus – namely Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Jesperi Kotkaniemi – can take over games and playing with veteran presence. That certainly was not the case on Monday night, as the kids were overpowered in Game 1.
Not only did they lose the skill battle, but they also lost the physical battle and seemed to let frustrations stack. Kotkaniemi took a retaliatory high-sticking penalty in the third period after getting roughed up by Erik Cernak.
More concerning was the fact that the Suzuki line had a tough go of things and was outscored 3-0 at 5v5. They couldn’t generate many legitimate scoring chances and they’re going to need to be much more impactful in this series, especially when matched up against Tampa’s top line of Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
Kucherov had a big night on Monday, scoring twice and picking up a primary assist. It doesn’t appear his health is too much of a concern right now, at least not for Tampa.
Kucherov’s three-point night brings him to an even 30 points in these playoffs, making him the third player in NHL history to record back-to-back 30-point postseasons. The other two guys to do it? Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemeiux. Not bad company to be in!
Also, not bad for a guy who didn’t play all season, either.
Tampa snaps Montreal’s PK streak
That assist registered by Kucherov? It came on a late power play opportunity for Tampa when Steven Stamkos hammered home the Bolts’ fifth and final goal of the night.
With that tally, the Canadiens’ impressive penalty kill streak has officially come to an end. Montreal had gone 13 straight games without giving up a power play goal, killing off 32 consecutive penalties dating back to Game 4 of its first round series versus the Maple Leafs.
The special teams battle in this series is going to be an interesting one. Tampa’s power play unit has been outrageously good, especially with Kucherov back in the mix, and they’ve converted at a 37.5 percent clip through the first 19 games of their run. At the same time, Montreal’s penalty kill has been unfathomably good, killing off 91.8 percent of the 49 power plays they’ve faced in these playoffs while also scoring four shorthanded goals.
Something’s gotta give there, and on Monday night it was Tampa winning the special teams battle, just as they won nearly every other battle.