What do we make of Game 1?
Was the 5-1 massacre in the opening game of the 2021 Stanley Cup Final proof that the Tampa Bay Lightning are in a completely different class from the Montreal Canadiens? Or, was this simply an off night by the Habs and the precurser to adjustments to come and a rebound in Game 2?
It's tough to decide.
Both oddsmakers and the betting public have underestimated Montreal since the playoffs began. They've rattled off three straight series advances, all as heavy underdogs. The Habs have also comeback from a 3-1 deficit versus Toronto and hammered Las Vegas 4 games to 2. No doubt, this is a resiliant team that's used to having their backs against the wall and being disrespected as a serious contender.
But let's also be realistic. As wonderful as Montreal's NHL Cinderella story has been and as profitable as the Canadiens have proven to be as underdogs, Tampa Bay is a championship-level team. They are proving that now. The Habs simply have not faced this calibre of team – balanced both offensively and defensively (especially defensively) until now.
Game 2 shows the Lightning as prohibitive -220 betting favourites. Tampa Bay laying 1.5 at +118 on the puckline is partcularly enticing.
The betting total is 5 goals.
This isn’t a strange spot for the Canadiens. Recall, they lost the first game of their semi-final series to the Las Vegas Golden Knights 4-1 before going on to win that series in six games. Many observers left them for dead after that first game.
As for manning the nets, Andrei Vasilevskiy was superb in Game 1 for the Lightning. The only score Vasilevskiy allowed was a freak deflection off two of his teammates’ skates. He successfully blocked a few breakaway chances and deflected 18 of Montreal’s 19 shots on goal. By the way, that's weak – Montreal has to put up at least 25 shots to have any reasonable chance at being competitive. Vasilevskiy now has a 1.94 GAA and a .936 save percentage this postseason.
For Montreal, Carey Price had one of his worst games of the playoffs. It may be wrong to fault Price for the goals he allowed, but the scoreboard doesn't lie. Price allowed more goals in Game 1 than in any of his previous outings this postseason. He now has a 2.18 GAA and a .928 save percentage in the playoffs. Since it’s been Price’s consistent play that has brought the Canadiens to this point, he must revert back to previous form. That might be a tall task versus a Lightning team that can score.
As for Tampa Bay scorers, Nikita Kucherov was the star of Game 1. Although Kucherov is clearly not at 100 percent due to injury, he still outplayed everyone else on the ice. His two goals in the third period alone locked the win for the Lightning. He also assisted on Steven Stamkos’ power play goal. Note that Kucherov joined elite company with his three points in the first game. He is now one of only three players in NHL history to record 30 points in consecutive postseasons, joining Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in that category.
Prediction: We won't lay -220 with the Lightning, which is too high. The better value is taking back +118 and playing Tampa Bay on the puckline. If the Lightning continue to play anything like we saw on Monday night, they'll win it by more than 1 goal. Score forecast: Tampa Bay 4, Montreal 1