Golden Knights vs. Canadiens: 2021 Stanley Cup Semifinal preview

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Yes, the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (and other NHL postseasons) are often about favorites vs. underdogs. Take one peek at the Vegas odds and you’ll realize just how strongly the Golden Knights are favored over the Montreal Canadiens in their Semifinal series.

Yet, when you break down how teams play — rather than how most people feel about their Stanley Cup chances — you can see clashes of styles.

Sometimes, you get too different-but-effective teams. You could argue that both the Golden Knights and Canadiens faced Second Round opponents who flipped the switch; where Vegas and Montreal own the quantity, Winnipeg, in particular, hoped to eke out just enough quality.

(Truthfully, when they’re buzzing, the Avs kind of nabbed both — just not against Vegas.)

[NBC 2021 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Beyond the don’t-bet-your-mortgage odds favoring the Golden Knights against the once-again-underdog Canadiens, this series is intriguing because of styles.

Broadly speaking, the Golden Knights and Canadiens play similarly. Both teams bombard opponents, hoping to create enough offense by force of will. These are two of the strongest even-strength teams you’ll find.

If you pay attention to “fancy stats,” you’ve likely noticed that Montreal’s been potent in that way for some time. So what’s changed? Well, you probably saw this coming: “Playoff Carey Price” entered the building.

Among all of the swirling considerations, the most important X-factor in the Canadiens – Golden Knights series remains if we’ll see “Playoff Carey Price” or the more troubling recent regular season version.

CANADIENS VS. GOLDEN KNIGHTSseries livestream link

Game 1: Mon., June 14: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 2: Wed. June 16: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
Game 3: Fri. June 18: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
Game 4: Sun. June 20: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 5: Tues. June 22: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 9 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)
*Game 6: Thurs. June 24: Golden Knights at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (USA Network / Peacock)
*Game 7: Sat. June 26: Canadiens at Golden Knights, 8 p.m ET (NBCSN / Peacock)

*if necessary

Offense

During the regular season, the Golden Knights scored 190 goals, the third-most in the NHL. Meanwhile, the Canadiens were slightly lower than middle-of-the-pack, generating 158 (17th overall, between the Blackhawks and Stars).

Even during these 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the name of Montreal’s game hasn’t exactly been offense. Memorably, the Canadiens upset the Maple Leafs in seven games even after Toronto actually scored more goals (18-14).

With essentially “two first lines,” and often the luxury of Alex Tuch on the third, the Golden Knights can throw out a truly intimidating offense. Not many teams would even try to trade haymakers with the Avalanche; the Golden Knights stood in there and actually knocked Colorado out.

Unlike many other powerful offenses, the Golden Knights can beat you with brute force. A ferocious forecheck helps Vegas wear down opponents, forcing turnovers and rush opportunities.

While the Canadiens’ offense hasn’t always been spectacular, you can’t totally dismiss them. As deep as Vegas is, Montreal’s a bit deeper. Josh Anderson‘s endured a quiet 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (one goal, zero assists in 11 games), but is an example of Habs who could make a difference.

Watch out for the combination of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. As Montreal’s trusted them more and more, they’ve added a dynamic dimension to the Habs’ offense. They might need some magic from those two against the vigorous Vegas attack.

(Oh, and no doubt, Max Pacioretty vs. his former team is a fun storyline.)

Advantage: Golden Knights

Defense

This one’s tricky.

If you conducted a “fantasy draft” of the defensemen in this series, you might pick Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore before you happen upon a Habs defenseman. With other options like Alec Martinez, the Golden Knights offer some depth, too.

You can’t credit offense and Marc-Andre Fleury alone for the Golden Knights beating the Avalanche. Their defense — and Peter DeBoer’s structure — made a big difference, too.

But if you go through the ways this series can play out in Montreal’s favor (think Dr. Strange calculating how Thanos could be defeated), it’s easiest to picture the Canadiens winning thanks to a bend-not-break structure.

We’ve certainly seen it in the past: an opponent allows the Golden Knights a ton of shots, but does a decent job limiting quality. If it comes down to that, Montreal won’t flinch at such a style.

But there’s an elephant in the room: Jeff Petry‘s health.

Yes, everyone’s banged up by the Semifinals of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But, as of this writing, it’s unclear if Petry can play in Game 1 on Monday (9 p.m. ET; NBCSN), and maybe beyond that.

Even today, Shea Weber deserves hype, and could be Montreal’s best defenseman. Petry has some say in that argument, however, and he’s crucial to that team finding some balance. Joel Edmundson‘s been impressive for the Canadiens, but without Petry, might the cracks show in his foundation?

Advantage: Golden Knights

Fleury
Getty Images

Goaltending

If we were looking at the regular season alone, Fleury would give the Golden Knights a huge advantage over Price and the Canadiens. (Honestly, considering how much Price wavered as the starter, it would’ve been tempting to phrase it as Jake Allen and the Canadiens.)

But people — especially Carey Price’s most eager boosters — might roll their eyes at talk of Price’s regular-season struggles at this point.

Whether you should throw out those numbers or not, there’s no denying that Price has been brilliant during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Frankly, the Canadiens needed that out of Price vs. the Maple Leafs. Maybe Price could have cooled off a bit vs. the Jets, but he was mostly keyed-in there, too.

Yet, while Price’s save percentage (.935) these playoffs is even better than Fleury’s (.923), you can’t dismiss degree of difficulty. If any team can make a goalie look bad, it’s Colorado. MAF passed those tests with flying colors, though.

In case injuries or struggles happen, both the Golden Knights and Canadiens boast strong backups. Again, Allen encroached on Price’s starting job, although neither were lights-out during the regular season.

If things went as Vegas drew things up, it would be Robin Lehner shutting the door this season and postseason. That could make for some awkward offseason decisions, but for now, Fleury – Lehner gives the Golden Knights the equivalent of two above-average (often elite) starters.

Advantage: Golden Knights

Special teams

As far as the four teams remaining in the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs go, only one can really live off of its power play: the Lightning.

Neither the Canadiens nor the Golden Knights have been overwhelmingly powerful in that area. But Montreal has the edge in power-play efficiency in both the regular season (19.2-percent to 17.8) and 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs (18.8 to 14.3).

The key question might be about the PK. The Golden Knights were the best penalty-killing team in the regular season (86.8-percent vs. Montreal’s 78.5), while Montreal has been incredible during this run. The numbers get drastic because of the small sample size of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Montreal’s PK (90.3-percent) is eye-popping, while Vegas mainly survived (71.4).

Talent-wise, it’s not outrageous to imagine Vegas “turning it on” and producing on the power play for a series. It just hasn’t happened often enough to chalk it up as an advantage.

Advantage: Canadiens

Golden Knights – Canadiens prediction: Vegas in 7

In our staff predictions, the Golden Knights and Lightning were both unanimous choices. The biggest area of variation was how many games the Canadiens might push the Golden Knights to.

Simply put, the Golden Knights are huge favorites against the Canadiens. To the point where you … probably shouldn’t bet on it.

But, particularly during these playoffs, would it be that shocking to see Montreal win?

Overall, this Golden Knights team looks like it could very well make its second Stanley Cup Final trip, unless the Canadiens have more upset magic in them.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.