The Lightning are the Habs' toughest test yet
Tampa Bay has tons of talent, plus grit and goaltending to match Montreal
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The Stanley Cup final starts tonight — and the Habs face their toughest test yet
With four more wins, the Montreal Canadiens can become the first Canadian-based team to win the Cup since Patrick Roy's Habs did it in 1993. They would also be one of the most improbable champions in NHL history — Montreal was the lowest-seeded team in the playoffs and a big underdog in two of its three series. But, in their upsets of the Leafs and Golden Knights and surprisingly easy sweep of the Jets, the Canadiens have proven to be a much better team than their regular-season record indicated. Make no mistake: they belong here.
We covered the keys to Montreal's magical run in Friday's newsletter. You can read it here, but I'll give you the Coles Notes: goalie Carey Price is playing out of his mind, the penalty killing has been spectacular, and the Canadiens are doing a great job shutting down their opponents' best players.
Those ingredients combined with great team spirit and a few good bounces can get you a long way in the NHL playoffs. And, for the Habs, they have. But they're about to face their toughest opponent yet.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and they're probably the best team in hockey over the last three years — dating back to 2018-19, when they put together one of the best regular seasons in NHL history before flaming out in the first round of the playoffs vs. Columbus. Since then, they've learned to keep their powder dry for when it really matters.
Top to bottom, the Lightning are a more talented team than the Canadiens, and they can match Montreal's grit and goaltending. A few key details to know about the Habs' opponent:
Their forwards are frightening. After "needing" (wink, wink) the entire regular season to recover from hip surgery, Nikita Kucherov is on his way to leading the playoffs in scoring for the second straight year. With 27 points in 20 games, he leads second-place Brayden Point by a whopping seven points. But Kucherov might be hurt: he played only one shift in Game 6 of Tampa's semifinal series vs. the Islanders and didn't seem like himself in Game 7. If he's not healthy, the Lightning have a lot of guys who can pick up the slack. Point is leading the playoffs with 14 goals (no one else has more than eight), and the third- and fourth-leading playoff scorers are also Lightning: Alex Killorn and Steven Stamkos. Tampa Bay's top three lines are all very dangerous.
Victor Hedman is again a beast on the blue line. The 2020 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP had a so-so regular season by his lofty standards, but he's turned it up in the playoffs. Hedman ranks sixth in the playoff scoring race (he's the only defenceman in the top 18) and he averages close to 25 minutes of ice time, so there's hardly any escaping him. Montreal has its own workhorse in Shea Weber, who's also one of the best blue-line anchors in hockey and a nightmare for opposing forwards to deal with.
Andrei Vasilevskiy can go toe-to-toe with Carey Price. They've been the two best goalies in this year's post-season, ranking 1-2 (in that order) in both goals-against average and save percentage among netminders who made it past the first round. So far, Price is the story of the playoffs for leading the Habs on their stunning run to the Cup final. But Vasilevskiy, who's a finalist for his second Vezina Trophy (which would give him one more than Price) is just as good a player.
A few last-minute notes on the Habs: Forward Joel Armia is officially a game-time decision tonight. He wasn't able to travel with his teammates to Tampa Bay yesterday after being placed in the NHL's COVID-19 protocol. But he's now cleared from the protocol, and he made the trip today on a private plane. Armia has five goals in the playoffs, including a league-leading two short-handed. Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme is still serving the required 14 days of quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 on June 18. He expects to return for Game 3 on Friday night in Montreal. The Habs are 3-1 with assistant Luke Richardson filling in. Read more about the Canadiens in this Cup final preview by CBC Sports contributor Vicki Hall.
Canada announced its roster for this week's last-chance Olympic men's basketball qualifier in Victoria. Only the winner of the six-team tournament gets to go to Tokyo. If the quantity of top-level players on each roster is any indication, that should be Canada. Eight of its 12 players are in the NBA: Nickeil Alexander-Walker (New Orleans), RJ Barrett (New York), Lu Dort (Oklahoma City), Cory Joseph (Detroit), Trey Lyles (San Antonio), Dwight Powell (Dallas), and Mychal Mulder and Andrew Wiggins (Golden State). The other four are former No. 1-overall NBA draft pick Anthony Bennett, Trae Bell-Haynes, Aaron Doornekamp and Andrew Nicholson. Canada opens Tuesday night against a Greece team that won't have two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who's playing in the Eastern Conference final for Milwaukee. Canada's other group-stage opponent is China, which it faces on Wednesday night. The other group has the Czech Republic, Turkey and Uruguay. We'll have a full primer on the tournament in tomorrow's newsletter. For now, read more about the Canadian roster here and know that you can watch the opener vs. Greece live Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on the CBC TV network.
Wimbledon is underway. You'll never believe this, but rain caused the postponement of several matches on opening day — 10th-seeded Canadian Denis Shapovalov's among them. Unseeded Canadian Vasek Pospisil was able to play, and he won in straight sets. No. 16 Felix Auger-Aliassime plays his first-round match tomorrow. Both Canadians in the women's singles draw are scheduled to begin Tuesday too. No. 5 Bianca Andreescu and unseeded Leylah Annie Fernandez are both looking for their first-ever main-draw victories at Wimbledon. American star Serena Williams, who's trying to win her eighth Wimbledon title and match Margaret Court's all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, also opens tomorrow. The big shocker today was men's No. 3 seed and recent French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas losing in straight sets to 57th-ranked American Frances Tiafoe. Read more about that and the rest of today's notable results here.
And in case you missed it…
A few more things from the weekend that you should know about:
A few athletes delivered at the Canadian track and field trials. This version of the meet didn't have quite the same juice as it normally does. Due to the pandemic, Athletics Canada didn't require athletes to compete in Montreal in order to be named to the Olympic or Paralympic teams. So some big names, including Andre De Grasse, didn't make the trip. For others, though, the trials were an opportunity to punch their tickets to Tokyo by meeting the qualifying standard in their event and/or improving their world ranking. Reigning Olympic men's high jump champion Derek Drouin was one of them until announcing Friday he was giving up on qualifying for the Olympics because his body still isn't right after several injury-plagued years. But Lindsey Butterworth (women's 800 metres), John Gay (men's 3,000m steeplechase) and Django Lovett (men's high jump) all won their events in Montreal and met the Olympic standards over the weekend. A few more still have a chance to meet their marks at a separate meet in Montreal tomorrow. Other interesting results from the trials: Aaron Brown, who had already qualified for the Olympics, won his fourth Canadian men's 100m title and fourth 200m title. Crystal Emmanuel (also pre-qualified for Tokyo) won her eighth Canadian women's 100m title and sixth 200m title. Olympic decathlon gold-medal contender Damian Warner won the men's long jump and 110m hurdles as he used the trials to sharpen his performances in those events. Canada's final track and field roster for Tokyo is expected to be announced soon.
The Olympic men's baseball field is set. The Dominican Republic won the final spot in the six-team tournament by beating Venezuela 8-5 in the final of the last-chance qualifier in Mexico. Former Toronto Blue Jays star Jose Bautista was left off the Dominican roster for this event after struggling at the Americas qualifier earlier this month in Florida, where Canada was eliminated from Olympic contention. But two other ex-Jays played key roles in the Dominican win: Melky Cabrera hit a two-run homer, and leadoff man Emilio Bonifacio drove in a run. The Dominican is ranked seventh in the world. In Tokyo, they'll be grouped with No. 1 Japan and No. 5 Mexico. The other group is No. 3 South Korea (which won gold the last time baseball appeared in the Olympics, in 2008), No. 4 United States and No. 24 Israel.
Women's golf has a new No. 1. Twenty-two-year-old American Nelly Korda jumped South Korea's Jin Young Ko after winning the Women's PGA Championship by three shots to claim her first major title. The world rankings as of today will be used to determine the 60-golfer field for the Tokyo Olympics. A country is allowed up to four players if they're all ranked in the top 15, so it looks like Korda and her sister Jessica (ranked 13th, and fourth among Americans) will both get to go. Outside of the top 15, there's a limit of two players per country. Brooke Henderson (seventh) and Alena Sharp (136th) should be Canada's representatives, assuming they want to play. Henderson tied for 21st at the Women's PGA, and Sharp tied for 25th. Read more about the tournament here.
There will be a new European men's soccer champion. Cristiano Ronaldo and reigning Euro champs Portugal were eliminated by Belgium in the round of 16 on Sunday. The 1-0 win earned the Belgians a quarter-final matchup with Italy, which got past Austria 2-1 in extra time on Saturday. Denmark will face the Czech Republic after the Danes crushed Wales 4-0 and the Czechs shocked the Netherlands 2-0. Spain advanced today with a wild 5-3 extra-time win over Croatia. They'll face the winner between Switzerland and reigning World Cup champion France, which was in progress at our publish time. Tomorrow's matches are Germany vs. England (at Wembley Stadium) and Sweden vs. Ukraine.
You're up to speed. Talk to you tomorrow.