The NHL return is careening towards a 24-team playoff format and five-game play-in series. It seems almost inevitable after the player reps and NHL met all week to get this train on the tracks, finally. Lagging behind Major League Baseball and the NBA, and with the time crunch of the start of 2020-21 looming like dark clouds in an already stormy situation, the 24-team playoff format met the least resistance, which means the Pittsburgh Penguins late-season slide will cost them a bye into the round of 16.
Instead, the Penguins, which finished in third place in the Metro Division, will face the 12th seed Montreal Canadiens in a play-in series.
It doesn’t quite seem fair, but welcome to life in the 2020 bizarro world.
So, the Pittsburgh Penguins season, which has been beset by a string of injuries to key players, will have one more unexpected and somewhat undeserved hurdle. They will have to beat the Montreal Canadiens and six-time All-Star goalie Carey Price.
Teams were conscious of the potential of Price to steal a three-game series, and the possibility significantly affected the NHL return-to-play committee discussions.
The Penguins will be healthy, minus Dominik Simon, who shoulder surgery on April 29. Additional talent allowed Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan to demote Simon to sparing fourth-line minutes in the days before his March 2 injury. The Penguins acquired LW Patrick Marleau at the NHL trade deadline, and that not only shuffled Simon to the back of the pack but gave Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan more options to configure his lineup.
Will Marleau side saddle Evgeni Malkin in the Penguins top-six, or slot beside the Penguins third-line center?
On paper, the Penguins are fearsome. The possibility of Jake Guentzel and Jason Zucker in the same lineup likely has coaches drooling as much as fans. The Penguins will have exceptional speed, above-average scoring touch, a healthy amount of jam in their lineup, and veterans with a jewelry box containing three diamond-encrusted Stanley Cup rings.
They will be a tough out in any round, but the hockey adage is true. It’s best to get to talented teams in the first round before they have their rhythm. The saying has never been more true than gauging a four-month layoff without ice proceeded by a cannonball into the deep end of the NHL pool.
“(Training on rollerblades) is a throwback to being a kid. It’s been fun. It’s definitely a bit different,” Zucker said on Monday. “I prefer ice nowadays, that’s for sure.’
It would be fair to assume Montreal will be playing with house money in the 2020 NHL return for the Stanley Cup. After all, what has Montreal got to lose? No one would expect them to win a series against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, not even the most ardent Montreal fan.
There would not be the usual Montreal fan pressure, which can be suffocating. And, like the Penguins, Montreal will be mostly healthy at the start of the tournament. Leading scorers and offensive weapons Jonathan Drouin and Tomas Tatar should be rested and ready. Both struggled with injuries before the NHL coronavirus pause on March 12.
On paper, the Pittsburgh Penguins should cut through Montreal like an F1 car in June. But these will be the NHL playoffs involving players who haven’t played competitive hockey since March.
Montreal traded away defensemen Marco Scandella and Nick Cousins, top-six forward Ilya Kovalchuk and fourth-line center Nate Thompson. However, Montreal is also a well-coached team with Stanley Cup winner Claude Julien behind the bench. Montreal likes a tight defensive style that can frustrate the Penguins when properly executed, but it’s a legitimate question if Montreal is big enough or strong enough to fully engage a shutdown game against the Penguins speed and skill.
Top Six Matchups
Down the middle, the Montreal Canadiens cannot compete with the Penguins. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin against Philip Danault and Max Domi. That’s no contest as both Domi and Danault have four career points in 11 games against the Penguins.
Crosby and Malkin should shut them down and hang a few goals on them.
The wings are a different matter. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Jonathan Drouin are legitimate top-six wingers and adequately rival the Penguins Jake Guentzel, Bryan Rust, and presumed Jason Zucker.
Considering Zucker’s and Rust’s lack of playoff point totals, this is an area of concern and a spot in which Montreal could balance the scales. We’ve detailed the current Penguins wingers and their postseason (lack of) success, here.
Expected Advantage: Heavily Penguins
On paper, the Pittsburgh Penguins have substantially more depth. However, hockey is a funny beast. Montreal depth grinders Dale Weiss and Paul Byron score at a much higher rate against the Penguins than against the rest of the league. Weiss, a former Philadelphia Flyer, has five points in 23 games this season and averages about one point every four games in his career. However, against the Penguins, Weiss has seven points (3g, 4a) in 17 games.
Seven points aren’t startling, but it’s those pesky goals from third liners that can swing a series. Likewise, Byron is generally a .4-points per game player but has nine points, including five goals in 16 games against the Penguins.
Sometimes, it seems like a lot more.
The Penguins depth isn’t much better or worse against Montreal than they are against everyone else except newly acquired Patrick Marleau. Since Marleau signed with Toronto in July 2016, he has seven points (2g, 5a) in nine games, which easily outpaces his typical average over the past three seasons. Marleau has been a thorn to Carey Price in his career, including Marleau running Price back in 2008 and forcing Price into an embarrassing turnover at the end of the 2017-18 season.
The Penguins also have the thumping fourth line with Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger, and Brandon Tanev. Any offset Montreal might gain with Byron and Weiss should be swallowed up by the Blueger line.
Expected Advantage: Solidly Penguins
Justin Schultz might be the difference-maker who tips the scales in either direction. The Montreal Canadiens defense corps is solid. Shea Weber anchors the first pair, Brett Kulak and Jeff Petry are the second pairing. The overall strength of the Montreal blue line is statistically even to the Pittsburgh Penguins top-four with Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, and Marcus Pettersson with John Marino.
Jack Johnson is a steady presence, and what the Penguins get from Schultz in a series against Montreal could complete the Penguins skaters dominance. If Schultz is at his puck-moving, quick skating best, the Penguins will breathe easy.
Shea Weber will make life difficult on Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel. That’s what he does. Head coach Mike Sullivan will attempt to get his scorers on the ice against the Montreal third pairing of Xavier Oulette and Christian Foulin.
Letang and Dumoulin are without concern. Pettersson and Marino had an issue with physical teams, but Montreal’s forwards don’t qualify as such, so they too will be fine. Johnson has played some of his best games as a Penguin against Montreal. His physical brand matches well against Montreal, and his stellar work on a late 5v3 penalty kill early last season still stands out.
Montreal probably won’t get Victor Mete back, so Foulin will carry a huge task. The journeyman who split time this season between Laval and Montreal has played just 61 NHL games over the past two seasons. He moves well but doesn’t play hard enough. In his seven-year professional career, he has played in only six playoff games.
Expected Advantage: Penguins
The Price is Right?
The NHL pushed for a three-game play-in series. They made headway until someone realized a team would have to play six-time All-Star, Vezina and Hart Trophy-winning goalie Carey Price, who could easily steal a game, maybe two, and a real playoff team’s season would be over.
That team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Price factor shoved the two sides towards a five-game series, according to long-time NY Post scribe Larry Brooks.
The 32-year-old goalie may not be a fearsome as he was a few years ago. He’s played far too many games behind a porous team. But he’s also kept Montreal in the playoff hunt every year despite their shortcomings. He’s very good, and now he’ll be rested.
This season, his numbers are down, like most other goaltenders. His save percentage is only .909, and his GAA is 2.79. Those numbers aren’t surprising given the Montreal patchwork defense and below-average team.
The Penguins will start Matt Murray in goal. Murray’s stats this season are poor. He has an .899 save percentage and 2.87 GAA. Neither stat is the result of a substandard team, but an abysmal November and December run, which temporarily cost him his starting job.
One area of concern, Murray reclaimed his starting job in January with a perfect 4-0-0 record, and .929 save percentage. However, he slipped in February to 2-4-1 record with a. .899 SV% during the Penguins awful slide. He was similarly underwater in March with an .887 save percentage but had a 3-1-0 record.
Murray could be the Penguins key. Or he could be on the bench if he doesn’t perform. Pittsburgh Hockey Now was able to confirm coaches had that conversation with Murray and backup Tristan Jarry in January. The net would be Murray’s, but he must perform competently to keep it. You can read the exclusive report on the internal discussion here.
Advantage: Potentially huge advantage Montreal
Conclusion: Penguins in 4
It won’t be easy. Price should be tough, and the Penguins will have to jell. The Penguins have not had their full lineup together for more than two periods the entire season. Crosby, Guentzel, Zucker, Malkin haven’t been together at the same time, and Marleau is a new face, too.
Montreal doesn’t have the horses to keep up with the Penguins. However, the great unknown is how quickly will teams and players get their legs and rhythm? Should the Penguins struggle to put it all together and Montreal goes for broke, this could be a disappointing end to a team that otherwise had no hopes of making the playoffs. It would have taken a miracle for Montreal to make the postseason, but instead, we got a catastrophe.
There will be no COVID Cup. It is the Stanley Cup, and the circumstances are unique, but whichever team lifts that chalice, it will forever be a championship.
The Penguins forecheck won’t be the saving grace as Montreal’s defensemen can move the puck, but the Penguins speed, tenacity and puck pressure should overwhelm the Montreal forwards, who aren’t physical. The Penguins need to get the puck in deep, hang onto the pucks low, and they will be able to dominate games.
That will be the fulcrum of the series.
The Penguins should steamroll through Montreal with superior forward skill and depth. The Penguins defense should, at worst, produce a draw with their Montreal counterparts. And, it will likely take an unbelievable performance from Price to steal a five-game series. Montreal will win a game to make it interesting, but the Penguins should easily win the series.
And, the extra play-in series will give the Penguins a leg up on the orange and black paper tiger which comes next, the Philadelphia Flyers.