Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, is impressed by both the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens, who open the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final on Monday (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).
It’s a razor-thin margin between the teams, Bowman said Saturday from his home near Buffalo, speaking of two superbly coached sides that are strong and deep from the net up through their defensemen and forwards, with excellent special teams.
“Being a team in the playoffs, and really playing like one, is the most important part of hockey,” said Bowman, who coached the Canadiens to Stanley Cup championships in 1973 and four straight from 1976-79, then added another with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992 and three with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
On all of those teams, he said, he had stars and players who embraced smaller but equally important roles. He sees exactly that now with the Lightning and Canadiens.
[RELATED: Complete coverage of 2021 Stanley Cup Final]
Bowman was just home from an arena in Amherst, New York, joking where else would he be on a summer morning? He’d spent an hour with two grandsons watching players in the 2021 BioSteel USA Hockey Boys Select 17 Camp, an evaluation to help select the United States team that will compete in the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in the Czech Republic and Slovakia beginning Aug. 2.
Back in the Buffalo area for a couple of months from his winter home in Sarasota, Florida, Bowman has been enjoying playoff hockey on TV while yearning for a return to an NHL arena. A regular in the press box at Amalie Arena in Tampa during a normal season, the 87-year-old has not been to a game since March 5, 2020, a 4-0 Lightning win against the Canadiens played a week before the 2019-20 NHL season was paused because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Now, Bowman looks at the Lightning and Canadiens and sees a matchup he views as much closer than the many who give Tampa Bay a wide edge. He’s impressed by the depth and explosive scoring of each team, and of shutdown goaltending that might leave snipers shaking their heads in frustration.
Something seems likely to give with special teams, the Canadiens leading the playoffs at 93.5 percent on the penalty kill, on a run of 30 straight kills, the Lightning having scored on 20 of 53 power plays for a 37.7 percent success rate.
“You’ve got players on both teams, because of coaching and experience, who have high hockey IQ,” Bowman said. “You have a lot of players who think the game well. Some think it well defensively. Guys like [Montreal forward] Corey Perry and [Tampa Bay forward] Brayden Point are good examples. They’re very savvy. They know if their team is leading a game, they’re not worried about scoring the next goal. They both have the same DNA that says, ‘We’ll try to score when we need to score, but when we don’t, we’ll play defensively.'”
Bowman spoke of two goalies who have statistics within a fraction of each other. Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy is 12-6 this postseason with a 1.99 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and four shutouts, compared to Montreal’s Carey Price (12-5, 2.02, .934, one shutout).
“You couldn’t pick two goalies who have done more for their team than these two,” he said. “They’ve both been able to shut the door in the big games. Look at [Friday] night. Tampa needed to pitch a shutout (1-0) to win Game 7 [against the New York Islanders].”
The defensemen on each team have bulk and attitude in sufficient quantity to punish attacking forwards, Bowman said.
That the Lightning have five of the top six in playoff scoring “isn’t relevant,” he said. “Tampa hasn’t played Montreal this season. What they’ve done until now isn’t important.
“For Tampa to win, they must continue to play with the experience they have, continue to protect the lead, which they’ve been so successful at. Look at their numbers when they lead after the second period (11-2 during the playoffs, 26-0-0 during the regular season).
“They’ve been able to play the right way. They can turn their game from offense to defense. I imagine if they’re behind in a game, they can crank up their offense. They have a lot of two-way guys.”
The Canadiens, Bowman said, “must show discipline, with Tampa’s power play such a threat, and be opportunistic on their own scoring chances, which has been a big factor.
“I learned a long time ago, if you’re going to play run-and-gun, try to play the man every shift, it’s not easy. This is a tough game. I think there’ll be close checking because that’s the way both teams can play, and there won’t be a rash of penalties.”
It’s the depth of each team that might decide the champion.
“The coaches of both Tampa (Jon Cooper) and Montreal (Dominique Ducharme and, to start the Final, Luke Richardson) don’t just count on certain guys. Some nights it’s this guy, the next night it’s someone else,” Bowman said. “The coaches have done a really good job of building teams, and that’s not an easy thing, because for the most part, hockey is played with just six guys on the ice.”