The Montreal Canadiens have to go through the defending Stanley Cup champions in order to bring the trophy home for an NHL record 24th time.
The 2021 Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning against the Canadiens, is loaded with plots and subplots, history and tradition, goaltending greats, skill, speed, tenacity, grit and devoted fanbases.
The best-of-7 series begins with Game 1 at Tampa Bay on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Here are 10 storylines to follow:
1. Montreal looking to end Canada’s 28-year drought
The Canadiens are Canada’s latest hope of ending the country’s longest drought without a Stanley Cup championship. No Canada-based team has won the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993.
The Canadiens are the sixth team from Canada to reach the Stanley Cup Final since they won the Cup in a five-game series against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.
The Vancouver Canucks (1994, 2011), Calgary Flames (2004), Edmonton Oilers (2006) and Ottawa Senators (2007) have lost the Cup Final since Montreal won.
Canada’s previous longest Cup drought was six seasons, from 1935-36 through 1940-41.
2. Tampa Bay going for repeat
The Lightning are back in the Final after winning the Stanley Cup last year. They are trying to become the second team to repeat this century, joining the Pittsburgh Penguins, who won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017.
The Penguins were the first team to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
The Lightning have won seven straight playoff series largely because they haven’t lost back-to-back games in the postseason since losing four in a row to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 Eastern Conference First Round.
Tampa Bay was 7-0 in games following a loss in the playoffs last year and is 6-0 following a loss this year.
3. Perry, Staal rewinding the clock
Corey Perry and Eric Staal are the Canadiens’ graybeards, the two oldest players on the team, each forward 36 years old. They’re each trying to win the Stanley Cup for a second time, but it’s been a while.
Staal and Perry each won the Cup in his second NHL season; Staal with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and Perry with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
Chris Chelios went an NHL-long 16 seasons between Cup championships (1986-2002). Staal is in his 15th season since winning it. Perry is in his 14th, which if he won would match Mark Recchi for the third longest stretch between championships behind Chelios and Staal.
Perry has scored nine points (three goals, six assists) and Staal has scored eight points (two goals, six assists) in the playoffs. They’re on the fourth line with Joel Armia.
4. Kucherov, Point leading again
Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov is leading the playoffs in scoring for the second straight season, and center Brayden Point is leading in playoff goals for the second straight season.
Kucherov has scored 27 points (five goals, 22 assists) in 18 games this postseason after scoring 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 games last season. He has scored 17 points on the power play (four goals, 13 assists) this season.
The last player to lead the NHL in postseason scoring in back-to-back seasons was Mario Lemieux in 1991 and 1992, when he helped the Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Point had a nine-game goal streak, the second longest in NHL playoff history, end in Game 7 of the Semifinals against the New York Islanders. He has scored 14 goals in 18 games after leading the postseason with 14 in 23 games last season.
The last player to lead in postseason goals in back-to-back seasons was Jari Kurri with the Edmonton Oilers in 1987 and 1988. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup each season.
5. Ducharme’s status
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme is expected to be back for Game 3 on Friday, when he would return from a 14-day quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 on June 18.
Ducharme didn’t coach the last four games against the Vegas Golden Knights after going into immediate isolation.
Assistant Luke Richardson has been the coach with Ducharme out and Montreal has won three of those four games.
6. Vasilevskiy vs. Price
Two of the top goalies in the NHL will go head to head in the Cup Final and it’s realistic that the winner could emerge with the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy leads the NHL with a .936 save percentage and his 1.99 goals-against average is the best among any goalie who advanced out of the first round. He has started the 18 games Tampa Bay has played and allowed 36 goals on 559 shots.
Vasilevskiy has a shutout in each of the past four series-clinching wins, an NHL record.
Not to be outdone, the Canadiens’ Carey Price has a .934 save percentage and a 2.02 GAA. He has started the 17 games Montreal has played and allowed 35 goals on 530 shots.
Vasilevskiy won the Vezina Trophy in 2018-19 and was voted a finalist this season. Price won the Vezina Trophy in 2014-15, when he also won the Hart Trophy voted as the NHL most valuable player.
7. Maroon hunting for Stanley Cup hat trick
Pat Maroon can become the first player to win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons since a handful of Islanders won it four straight times from 1980-83, including Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies, Billy Smith and Denis Potvin.
Maroon won the Stanley Cup with his hometown St. Louis Blues in 2019. He went to Tampa Bay on a two-year, $1.8 million contract last season and won it with the Lightning.
He has scored three points (one goal, two assists) in 18 games playing regularly on the fourth line with Ross Colton and Tyler Johnson.
8. Danault’s monumental task
Phillip Danault, with the help of linemates Brendan Gallagher and Artturi Lehkonen, along with defensemen Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, has handled three challenging assignments in the playoffs, but his hardest might be ahead of him.
Danault, the Canadiens’ best shutdown center, has helped to limit Toronto Maple Leafs forwards Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner, Winnipeg Jets forwards Kyle Connor and Blake Wheeler, and Vegas Golden Knights forwards Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty.
This series he’ll likely be matched up regularly against the Lightning’s top line of Point, Kucherov and Ondrej Palat at even strength and their top power play unit, which has Kucherov and Point with Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman.
Danault leads Canadiens forwards total ice time per game (19:03) and shorthanded ice time per game (2:36). He has three assists in 17 playoff games, but his role is to help keep the puck out more than it is to try to put it in.
9. Tampa Bay’s power play vs. Montreal’s penalty kill
The special teams battle in the Cup Final is going to be fascinating to watch as the tic-tac-toe Lightning power play goes head to head against the aggressive shutdown Canadiens penalty kill.
Tampa Bay is 37.7 percent on the power play, with all 20 goals coming from the first unit, seven by Point.
Montreal leads the postseason at 93.5 percent on the penalty kill, including 30-for-30 with three shorthanded goals since Game 5 against the Maple Leafs in the first round May 27.
The Canadiens are 11-2 since they last allowed a power-play goal.
10. Cooper trying to join exclusive fraternity
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is trying to become the 19th coach to win the Stanley Cup twice, and to become the 12th coach to win it in at least two consecutive seasons, joining Scotty Bowman, Toe Blake, Hap Day, Punch Imlach, Al Arbour, Glen Sather, Jack Adams, Fred Shero, Cecil Hart, Tommy Gorman and Mike Sullivan.
Cooper has the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final for the third time since 2015, when they lost in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks.
He is tied for seventh among active coaches with 66 postseason wins. He also has the best winning percentage (.595) of all active coaches who have been to the playoffs at least twice.