PITTSBURGH PENGUINS – By Ryan Kennedy
Try and find logic in Pittsburgh’s 2019-20 season – we dare you. The Penguins persevered through an unholy number of injuries for much of the campaign, losing stars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Kris Letang at various points as well as a slew of other contributors. No NHL team lost as many man-games based on average ice time of the players missing. And yet, the Penguins played well and even led their division at one point. But then, once the team got relatively healthy, it went in the tank. Go figure. Given how important momentum is heading into the playoffs, it wasn’t a good sign that Pittsburgh struggled in late February and early March. Perhaps the premature end to the regular season due to COVID-19 gave the Pens a chance to reset and break out of the funk.
To be sure, any team helmed by Crosby and Malkin has a shot at the Stanley Cup, and this is a talented, experienced squad that is well-coached with Mike Sullivan behind the bench. Pittsburgh was a top-10 team in offense and penalty killing, while sitting just outside that range on defense and putting up positive possession stats.
If there’s one major concern heading into the playoffs, it’s in the crease. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, with a two-time Cup-winner on the roster, but Matt Murray slogged through a dreadful season that saw the 25-year-old slump to a sub-.900 save percentage. Luckily, backup Tristan Jarry has turned into much more than a second option, rocking some of the best numbers in the NHL and earning his first trip to the All-Star Game. But, like Washington, the Pens will have to figure out whether to go with the guy who’s been there before or the guy who was the superior stopper this season. For what it’s worth, Jarry won a Memorial Cup with WHL Edmonton back in 2014, so he knows what it’s like to play under pressure.
X-factor: Rookie defenseman John Marino was one of the most crucial additions to the Pittsburgh lineup this season, providing secondary offense (only Kris Letang had more points among Penguins blueliners) and puck-moving ability. But will Marino’s lack of playoff experience be an issue? The intensity of the NHL post-season will surely pose a challenge, at least initially, for the 23-year-old Harvard alum. The Penguins were good about not overloading Marino with ice time during the regular season, as he only averaged a little more than 20 minutes a night. They’d be wise to follow that formula in the playoffs.
MONTREAL CANADIENS – By Matt Larkin
The Habs top the “lucky to be there” standings entering the 24-team playoff tournament, having qualified with the league’s 24th-best points percentage. When the NHL season paused March 12, Montreal sat 10 points out of a playoff spot.
If the Canadiens are going to pull off a miracle run, they’ll need Carey Price to play like his old superstar self. Players around the league still revere him – the NHL Players’ Association has voted him the best goalie in the league three years running – but he was below average this season and expressed serious concerns about leaving his family to return to play. Will his head be in it? The good news is that the Habs played above-average defensive hockey in front of their goalies this season, particularly when it came to suppressing shots. Shea Weber had one of his best seasons in years at 34, and Jeff Petry continues to be one of the most underrated middle-pair blueliners in the league.
If Montreal can’t keep the Penguins off the scoreboard during the play-in round, though, it could be a short series, as the Habs have a relatively punchless attack despite their outstanding team speed, with just two 20-goal scorers, one player topping 50 points and the league’s 22nd-ranked power play at 17.7 percent.
Montreal will have to rely a lot on its dominant top line. Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault ranked first, second and third in the NHL in 5-on-5 Corsi among all forwards with at least 500 minutes played this season. With them on the ice, the shot and goal ratios heavily skew in Montreal’s favor. As the center driving the line, Danault was Selke-caliber great.
But that line can’t win games on its own. Montreal will need a spark from rookie Nick Suzuki and a bounce-back effort from Max Domi, who regressed after a career year in 2018-19 and joined the playoff camp late due to immune-system risks from his diabetes. The Habs also hope Jonathan Drouin can shake off the rust to provide secondary scoring touch after missing most of 2019-20 with a wrist injury.
X-factor: Alexis Lafreniere beckons. The Canadiens haven’t had a star francophone forward since Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeon in the mid-1990s. Now, after ‘Qualifying Team’ won the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft lottery, each of the eight losing teams from the play-in round has a 12.5-percent chance of scoring the supremely skilled left winger. The Habs, who finished with a .500 points percentage, do not have a 12.5-percent chance to win the Stanley Cup. Players aren’t capable of consciously tanking, but will they realize on a subconscious level that they may be better off losing? Could it lead to a flat performance?
Dec. 12, 2019: Canadiens 4, Penguins 1
Jan. 4, 2020: Penguins 3, Canadiens 2 (OT)
Feb. 14, 2020: Penguins 4, Canadiens 1
Saturday, Aug. 1, 8:00 p.m.: Canadiens at Penguins
Monday, Aug. 3, 8:00 p.m.: Canadiens at Penguins
Wednesday, Aug. 5, 8:00 p.m.: Penguins at Canadiens
Friday, Aug. 7, TBD: Penguins at Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8, TBD: Canadiens at Penguins*
(All games listed ET)
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ SERIES PICK: Penguins in four games
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