#5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs #12 Montreal Canadiens
We keep seeing folks around the hockey Twittersphere referencing this series as one that can get stolen by Montreal’s goaltender. One could argue that such a phenomenon can happen in any of these best-of-five qualifying rounds, especially considering that we simply don’t know how netminders will respond to the long layoff, and whether the months of unexpected recuperation will end up being beneficial or detrimental to their respective performances. But there’s no denying that a healthy, rested, and focused Carey Price can be a gamebreaker—heck, he’s one of only seven goalies in history to win the Hart Trophy—especially if things go his way in the opening games of this series.
Reports out of Montreal’s summer training camp indicate that the former Tri-City American is in prime form, but even Price says that he can’t win this thing by himself, and he’s probably right. After all, the Penguins are waayyyyyyyy better than the Habs, and Montreal being included in this tournament at all came by the hair on Claude Julien’s chinny chin chin.
Besides, Pittsburgh has two really good goalies, which simple math says is better than just one really good goalie, so the odds are clearly in favor of the Pens on this one. Nonetheless, let’s dive in and see what we can unearth on this intriguing matchup of best versus worst of the Eastern Conference qualify-or-potentially-win-the-Draft-Lottery teams.
1Certainly nobody outside of Pittsburgh is rooting for the Penguins to go on a deep playoff run (right?), but this franchise does fall into the “Please, God, no!” category of teams that still have a chance to win the lottery and the gift of selecting Alexis Lafrenière. Of course, if Pittsburgh wins this and punches its ticket to the real playoffs – which it certainly should do – then it won’t be included in the final eight teams in the sweepstakes, and perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing. After all, this team is still scary good, and as far as the rest of the hockey world is concerned, the last thing Pittsburgh needs is another generational talent. So sliding by the inferior Habs in the Qualifying Round would probably be fine for all non-Pittsburghers.
Wait, is that what they’re called? Pittsburghers?
Anyway, one of the reasons the Penguins are so scary is because their stars have the experience and know exactly what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. It’s generally believed that Sidney Crosby doesn’t allow his robot body to run at 100% until the end of the season, when he finally flips the switch to full power and takes control of every shift he plays. This season is a little different, though, because Sid missed 28 consecutive games after surgery to repair a core muscle in November. He also apparently left practice early on Saturday and did not practice on Sunday, though according to The Athletic, this is “only a precaution,” and Crosby refused to even use the word “injury.” Something tells me he’ll be ready to go when the puck drops on this series on August 1st.
Another reason that Pittsburgh is scary is because one of its top playoff performers of the past few seasons – Jake Guentzel – has been given a new lease on the life that is this season, thanks to the long layoff. Guentzel had shoulder surgery after getting injured in December, and was then ruled out for the remainder of the regular season and part of the Playoffs, had they gone on as normally scheduled. The original prognosis was that he may be able to return if his team went on a long run, but obviously returning from such a malady likely doesn’t lead to an instantaneous impact. Instead, he’s had four extra months to recover, and now can be expected to fully contribute. Remember, this is the guy that burst onto the scene with 21 points in 25 playoff games during the march of the Penguins (get it?) to the Cup in 2017, then followed that up with 21 more points in just 12 games in 2018. Getting Jake N’ Bake back alongside Sid earlier than anticipated is a huge boon for the Penguins.
Meanwhile, the combo platter of outstanding goaltenders in Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry is quite intriguing. It was Murray that took over the net from Marc-Andre Fleury en route to the Penguins winning the 2017 Cup. But Murray has now tasted his own bitter medicine this season, and ended up splitting time almost equally with the 25-year-old Jarry, who posted an impressive 2.43 GAA and .921 save percentage in 33 games. Jarry cooled a bit just before the pause, and Murray ended up starting five of the last seven games, so we shall see which direction Mike Sullivan goes. Either way, we can hope that Pittsburgh loses one of these great goalies to Seattle next summer, so from the local perspective, keep an eye on this crease.
Another interesting angle for Pittsburgh is the old man angle. Patrick Marleau has never won a Stanley Cup, and at 40 years old, one would have to think that this former Seattle Thunderbird is likely getting his last chance.
A huge question mark surrounding Montreal was whether or not Max Domi would end up participating in this return-to-play process. He is a type 1 diabetic and a celiac, making him high risk for COVID-19, so the original decision was that he would wait a week or so to see how things were going in Phase 3. Domi did return to the ice with his teammates on Monday, indicating that he and the Montreal medical staff have decided that it’s safe for him to participate.
Domi’s inclusion makes this a much deeper team, which is important, because there simply are no individual superstars here. Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher led the way with 22 goals each during the regular season, while Domi added 17 goals and 27 assists.
As mentioned, to have a chance, Price will have to play out of his mind, while everyone up front will need to contribute in little ways for the Habs, with secondary and tertiary scoring being key.
There’s just too much firepower in Pittsburgh’s lineup. We didn’t even talk about Evgeni Malkin, Jason Zucker, or Patric Hornqvist, but those guys are all in the mix as well. Montreal is lucky to be involved, and while it’s still very possible that Price can have an outstanding series, it won’t be enough to knock off the mighty Penguins.
Pittsburgh will sweep.