The Pittsburgh Penguins can’t seem to buy a break in the new 24-team NHL playoff format. First, the Penguins lost the privilege earned by their third-place finish in the Metro Division when they were shoved into the Qualifying Round against the Montreal Canadiens in a short series.
That Qualifying Round burden and the eventuality of facing Carey Price, who made the Penguins work overtime to earn their goals this season, drew some internal consternation. Still, it passed as players, and the organization looked forward to the next steps.
Phase 2 begins on Monday, and more than a few players were excited.
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Also, as part of the NHL return to play 24-team tournament, the top four teams in each conference will play a round-robin tournament to re-seed. That part we knew before Thursday. However, the latest agreement between the NHL and NHLPA confirmed the NHL would not use a bracket system, but would instead re-seed teams after each round.
If the NHL had allowed the top-four teams to keep their byes, the Penguins would have drawn the Philadelphia Flyers in Round One, if the Penguins beat Montreal. In Round Two, the Penguins path would have most likely brought them the top seed Boston Bruins. Facing Boston in Round Two is not an ideal matchup and a much more difficult way than Philadelphia and Washington or a wild-card winner, but at least drawing Philadelphia in Round One would have been a proper Round One opponent.
But the pause and the agreements may have denied that matchup and may hand the Penguins a much tougher path in which they have to beath the three best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Imagine this scenario because of the round-robin re-seeding: The Pittsburgh Penguins draw, in succession, the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, and Tampa Bay Lightning to escape the Eastern Conference. Or Washington, Tampa Bay, Boston.
That would be the toughest route to the Stanley Cup for a third-place team in history. No, I don’t know why the players union wanted to risk the rewards of a season worth of hard work on a few games.
But they did.
So, instead of the Penguins getting the Philadelphia Flyers in Round One, and allow other top teams to knock each other out, they could well have the draw from hell.
The Penguins were 1-2 against Boston, 0-2-1 against Tampa Bay, and 1-2 against Washington. That’s a cumulative 2-6-1 record against the top three teams in the conference. The Penguins would be 1-7-1 if Matt Murray didn’t steal a game against Washington in late January, too. Jarry took one point against Tampa Bay early in the season, also.
In other words, the top teams blitzed the Penguins.
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
There has been some public rebuke of the notion the Penguins are afraid of facing Carey Price in a short series. The Penguins players remember owning the scoring chances in two of the three games and easily winning that third game. However, the coaches, specifically Mark Recchi, are more concerned. Recchi spoke with Sportsnet publicly.
His “pain in the butt” comments echo what we’ve heard privately. The Penguins coaches are not taking Montreal lightly, and there is legit concern about a short series and a hot goalie.
Montreal may also win their battle to upgrade their defense with a hotshot prospect from Russia.
So, the chips to win a fourth Stanley Cup for Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang are stacked against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the stack is getting higher by the day.
Pretty much like the regular season, when the Penguins defied all of the odds, huh?
I certainly won’t bet against this group.