Monday is Day 1 for the NHL Return to Play Plan. The league officially moved to Phase 2, and 16 teams will open their facilities for players to begin small-group workouts (off and on-ice). The Pittsburgh Penguins are testing players and providing COVID-19 education on Monday, and the ice surface at the UPMC Lemieux Complex will be ready to go.
Many Penguins raced back to Pittsburgh a few weeks ago after the NHL and NHLPA approved the 24-team NHL return format, and the NHL announced they would move to Phase 2 in early June. The backchannel chatter was excitement at moving forward but also disappointment that Phase 3 is so far away.
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang publicly declared he wanted to be a part of Day 1 skating activity. Last week, Evgeni Malkin posted pictures on social media of his trip back to Pittsburgh.
Their Qualifying Round opponent, the Montreal Canadiens…not so much.
Montreal will not open their facility this week, not because of COVID-19 fears, but because of a “lack of demand.” The Montreal Canadiens did not rush back to Montreal to get things started, but instead, the players are choosing to work out on their own.
In fact, there is no ice at the Bell Sports Complex. None. The Montreal Canadiens laid off the employees in charge of making and maintaining the ice, and according to the Montreal Gazette, Montreal will recall those employees as soon as a player requests to begin working out.
Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher chose to stay home in British Columbia to workout, rather than face the two-week quarantine mandated by the Canadian government. And, according to the Gazette, there are only two players currently in Montreal.
The players will have to face the quarantine rules, at some time in the process. Now or later. The Penguins players rushed back three weeks ago. Had Montreal players done the same, they too would be ready to go.
In other words, the Montreal Canadiens aren’t keen on uprooting their life for six weeks of work to lose in a few games, then go back home for four months. Hockey players often know on what level their team fits. Players know if they have a shot at the Stanley Cup or if a Round Two appearance is a victory.
Montreal looked in the mirror a few months ago.
Hockey is a mental game. Despite the combination of flying hits at 35mph and graceful displays of athleticism for which Russian teams used to practice ballet, hockey remains an aetherial and emotional game. In most playoff series, there is a breaking point and moment of inevitability in which one team recognizes the eventual outcome. The Pittsburgh Penguins provided a few of those moments to other organizations in 2016 and 2017, and they were handed one somewhere in Game 3 of their Round One loss via sweep against the New York Islanders last season.
The Montreal Canadiens made a run at the 2020 playoffs. They acquired defenseman Marco Scandella from Buffalo and winger Ilya Kovalchuk from LA and yet failed. Montreal finished 10 points out of the would-be wild-card spot.
Somewhere before the March 12 COVID-19 pandemic pause, the Montreal Canadiens realized their season was over. The limped to the break with a 4-8-2 record, including with three straight losses.
White flags were raised. Shea Weber wasn’t healthy, nor were a few other front line players, including Jonathan Drouin. But having a healthy lineup doesn’t seem to have lifted their spirits.
It certainly lifted the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Unlike the Penguins which were struggled to the NHL pause with worn-out legs due to compensating for an extraordinary spate of injuries, Montreal was dealing with the inevitable U-Haul truck syndrome.
When the NHL and NHLPA agreed to the 24-team NHL return, which included teams well out of the playoff race, it gave Montreal new life, but it does not appear they are necessarily embracing it.
It seems like Montreal is treating it like a burden. Add the Canadian government’s two-week quarantine mandate for players who travel to Montreal, and the Canadiens arena may not open until later June, at the earliest.
“Lack of demand.”
There could be two Carey Price clones in the net, but a half-hearted team cannot win. Not only will the Penguins have an advantage because they are working out together, but it also appears they have a mental advantage, too. That certainly works to the Penguins favor.