NHL Playoffs Semifinals Preview: Top Picks for Golden Knights vs. Canadiens (2021)

When the puck drops on Monday night at T-Mobile Arena, it’ll officially end an entire week without hockey for the Montreal Canadiens. The semifinalists representing the North Division wrapped up their four-game sweep of the Winnipeg Jets last Monday and will be thrust into a completely different environment than the one they’ve become accustomed to. They’ll be playing in front of a capacity crowd for the first time all year, as Canadian arenas just started allowing limited numbers of fans to attend games, and it’ll be one of the loudest and most raucous crowds the NHL has to offer. How much of a shock will the crowd noise be, and how quickly can Montreal shake off a week’s worth of rust?

Another year, another threatening Golden Knights team. But is this the year they finally get it done? They’re fresh off four consecutive wins to knock the Presidents Trophy-winning Avalanche out of the playoffs, and they look poised to do even more damage. Marc-Andre Fleury is playing well, Vegas is getting contributions from up-and-down the lineup, and their blue-liners are doing what they do best: blocking shots. 

This is, obviously, the first time these two teams have met in the playoffs, and perhaps even more interestingly, this matchup features one of the league’s Original Six teams against the league’s newest team. The Golden Knights are one of the heaviest favorites you’ll ever see in a semifinal round playoff matchup in any sport, but can the Canadiens shock the hockey world once more? Let’s find out.

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Vegas Golden Knights

As mentioned in my playoff preview, I think the Golden Knights are the most complete team in hockey, and they proved it in the last series against Colorado. The Avalanche winning the Stanley Cup was a foregone conclusion to some. Many gave Vegas little-to-no chance to put up a fight in the series – especially after they dropped the first two games in Colorado. But, they regrouped, got back to playing Golden Knights hockey, and ran the Avalanche right out of the series and into an early offseason. Nothing against Montreal, but if Vegas plays against them how they played in the final four meetings with the Avalanche, this thing could be over in short order.

Marc-Andre Fleury has been spectacular this playoff, and he’s performed well against two completely different styles of hockey. He shut down the heavy, gritty Minnesota Wild in the opening round and adjusted on a dime to put the clamps down on the Avalanche and their tantalizing speed in round two. The Canadiens don’t have nearly the scoring threats of either Minnesota or Colorado. If Fleury gets locked in early again, the Golden Knights might be able to ride their veteran netminder all the way to another Final appearance. 

Marc-Andre Fleury just keeps on winning!#VegasBorn | #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/rIRP2LgplF

— NHL on NBC Sports (@NHLonNBCSports) June 11, 2021

Fleury has a 1.91 goals against average and a .923 save percentage in his 12 playoff games this year, he’s stopped 4.7 goals above expectation (fourth among playoff goalies), and his .965 save percentage on unblocked shots leads playoff netminders. He’s just flat out better than the guys firing shots his way right now, but he’s also getting a ton of help from his defense.

The Golden Knights live to block shots; that’s one of head coach Pete DeBoer’s staples. Make it difficult for the other team to get pucks through to your goalie. Vegas led all teams this season in shot blocks, and they’re living up to expectations this postseason as well, leading all playoff teams in the same category. Montreal has a way to combat that – Shea Weber’s heavy slap shot from the point – but everyone on Vegas’ back end is so willing to get in the way of shots, it’ll be tough for the Canadiens to get pucks in deep against the Knights consistently.

Another area Vegas has excelled in is generating shots. They’re second among all playoff teams in shots for percentage (54%), meaning of all shot attempts taken in their games, 54% of them have belonged to the Golden Knights. They’ve got a dynamic top line who’s helping drive much of this production, led by one of the best and most underrated captains and players in the game: Mark Stone. Stone is an emotional leader, a hard-nosed 200-foot player, and it also doesn’t hurt that he’s second on the team in goals (five) and points (eight). That top line also employs Max Pacioretty, who should be extra-motivated to battle the team he spent the first 10 years of his career with, and one he used to captain.

Max Pacioretty – Playoffs

With the Montreal Canadiens
Age: 24-28
38 games
19:29 average ice time
10 goals
9 assists
142 shots
7.0 shooting %

With the Vegas Golden Knights
Age: 30-32
30 games
17:43 average ice time
14 goals
13 assists
113 shots
12.4 shooting % pic.twitter.com/7RycmBuzV0

— Complete Hockey News (@CompleteHkyNews) June 11, 2021

Vegas’ second line – which was actually their top line during their expansion-year Cup run – has stepped up in the playoffs as well. Reilly Smith, Jonathan Marchessault, and William Karlsson have 26 goals and 94 shots between them and have made the Golden Knights a matchup nightmare for opponents.

On paper, Vegas is the better team by a wide margin. But games aren’t played on paper. The Golden Knights will have to be just as good against Montreal as they were against Minnesota and Colorado if they want a second chance to raise the Cup.

Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens are this year’s feel-good underdog story. After limping into the playoffs as the North Division’s four seed, Montreal faced a 3-1 series deficit against the division-champion, arch rival Maple Leafs. Since that moment, Montreal is 7-0, and their goaltender is an enormous reason why.

Carey Price has turned back the clock this playoff. He’s third among netminders in goals saved above average (8.9), third in goals against average (1.97), and best in save percentage (.935). Don’t underestimate the level of skills he’s had to face as well in both Toronto and Winnipeg. Both teams have top sixes that live to put pucks in the back of the net, and Price has had none of it this postseason. Vegas loves to get bodies in front of the net and tight on the goalie, so Price will have to work hard yet again if he wants to maintain his strong numbers.

#GoHabsGo Carey Price: Last 7 games

Record: 7-0
GAA: 1.64
Save %: .943
Shutouts: 1 pic.twitter.com/We8ND4Haul

— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) June 8, 2021

Montreal was extremely physical this season and actually led the NHL in hits. They’ll be going up against the playoff leaders in hits in the Golden Knights, and while some of that is the benefit of playing 13 games to Montreal’s 11, a lot of it speaks to how the Golden Knights want to win games: physically. That’s exactly not only how the Canadiens want to win games, but almost how they have to. They’ve got a ton of nice pieces up and down this lineup, but they don’t have a bonafide scoring threat who has the ability to take over a game on his own. They need to hold the fort in front of Price and hope a timely goal finds its way into the back of their opponent’s net.

The Canadiens have not trailed for 437:53, it's now the 2nd-longest streak all-time without trailing in a single playoff year.

That is 7 hours, 17 minutes and 53 seconds of ice time pic.twitter.com/0qt91pbMcg

— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 8, 2021

What’s really helped fuel this Cinderella run for Montreal has been their play in the dirty areas. They’re third among playoff teams in high danger goals for percentage (63.16%) and second behind only Tampa Bay in high-danger save percentage (89.23%). It’s the hockey equivalent of “winning in the trenches” in the NFL, and it’s a challenging style to play against. It’s also helped them achieve the best penalty kill in this year’s playoff. They’ve killed 90.3% of penalties while Vegas’s powerplay has struggled (14.3%). Continued success while down a man is huge for Montreal in this series; they can’t let Vegas blow the floodgates open on the man advantage, especially early in games.

The long layoff between rounds was a killer for Winnipeg, who just never got going against Montreal, so it’s something to be a bit wary about if you’re a Canadiens fan or bettor. Going a week straight without a game – in the playoffs, no less – is a huge momentum killer. And the Canadiens had perhaps the most momentum of any team still alive. Another thing to keep an eye on in this series is the crowd factor, and many are writing it off as something the veterans of Montreal will be able to combat without issue, but I’m not so sure. 

After playing the entire end of the 2020 year in the bubble with no fans, playing 56 regular-season games with no fans, and playing two playoff rounds with very few or no fans, stepping into an electric and intense arena with 18,000 screaming fans, all of whom are cheering against you, won’t be like riding a bike. The Canadiens are at a huge disadvantage not only on the road but at home if they aren’t granted increased capacity. It’s much harder to catch a tailwind without fans in the building; fans are an enormous part of playoff success, and Montreal may not have the luxury of their faithful behind them.

Montreal has been counted out every step of the way, so they’re not listening to the naysayers who aren’t giving them a chance in this series either. They’re playing with house money, but how far can they ride it?

Top Betting Picks

This series is a tough one to find betting value. Vegas is as steep as -500 at some books to advance to the Stanley Cup Final, so there’s no value whatsoever left on the series line. Many of the props are too heavily skewed towards Vegas players to find much value, either. So, we’re going to have to dig a bit deeper.

The Canadiens have been a fantastic story for hockey and have embodied why fans love the sport and love the playoffs so much. Anything can happen. Even the lowest team on the playoff totem pole can get hot and rip off enough wins to reach the Cup Final. However, I think their magic carpet ride comes to an abrupt end here; the Golden Knights are just too good, too powerful, too built to win a Cup, and are playing too well. 

Currently, Knights -2.5 games is sitting at plus-money, but I don’t think that’ll last very long especially if Vegas wins game one convincingly. I’m happy to take Vegas -2.5 games at +120 because I think they’ll win this series in short order, and it won’t take more than five meetings. The crowd advantage favors Vegas. The skill advantage favors Vegas. Experience is on Vegas’ side. The ice is just too tilted. I also think a sweep is a distinct possibility, and I’ve also sprinkled a bit on Vegas to sweep +375.

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Mike Wagenman is a featured writer at BettingPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him on Twitter @mjwags23.

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