Training camps in full force, NHL players and coaches are getting set to compete once again. They will be jumping straight from training camp to playoffs-like competition, so they have their work cut-out for them. Usually, players can ease into the season slowly as they have 82 games to get in game shape and bring not only their compete level up, but their body to where it needs to be for the gruelling playoffs. Having been off since mid-March, it will have been four months without competition before they jump right in. And if you’re a fan of a team and the players on that team, you should be very concerned… injuries, serious injuries, can and will happen. But that’s not the point of this article.
The Montreal Canadiens weren’t supposed to make the playoffs. They were 24th in the entire NHL when activities stopped back in March, and were all but mathematically eliminated from a participation to the Spring tournament. COVID-19 changed all that and greed is now allowing not only the league to pursue this season, but also ruining two seasons instead of one by forcing a late start to the 2020-21 season as well. Money talks. Older players want what could be a last shot at the Stanley Cup and younger players feel like the Coronavirus can’t affect them. But money is and will be THE motivating factor in the nonsense of playing this late in the summer. In addition, the NHL needs the Canadiens in the playoffs.
Bring on the Pens
The Pittsburgh Penguins won’t take the Canadiens lightly, you can rest assured. Multiple reports came out a few weeks ago that players rejected a best of three series in the play-ins (justification name given to the first round, pre-playoffs) because of Patrick Kane and mostly, Carey Price.
“The league initially suggested this play-in round be best two out of three and the players said no way,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman on Sportsnet 590. “They felt it was not acceptable enough for the teams that had a better regular season and Pittsburgh looked at its matchup and it said ‘two out of three against Carey Price is not fair for a team that had zero percentage points to play in the playoffs.”
“If the players feel that way, the players feel that way. They’re the guy that they gotta shoot against and they clearly believe that he is a difference-maker … The players fought the two-out-of-three because of him. I did hear that the Western teams – and now it’s going to be Edmonton – they were like, ‘two out of three with Patrick Kane? I mean come on.’ But it wasn’t at the same level as Price.”
And so this series will be a best of five instead. Price, who once again was voted the best goaltender in the NHL by the NHLPA players’ poll, received 41.55% of his peers’ votes, well ahead of Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy who was second at 17.09%. Don’t let a few fans and media members fool you folks: no matter how well or how bad the Habs can be, Price lives rent-free in his opponents’ head… and rightfully so.
Which version of Price will we see? That’s the million dollar question. In the last two seasons, Price has been horrible at the start of the season (particularly in November) before rebounding strong for the rest of the year. He won’t have this luxury this time around as a slow start by him and the Canadiens will be sent packing in a hurry, and praying that Lady Luck smiles at them in the Lottery Draft with their 12.5% to pick first overall and ultimately, get their hands on local sensation Alexis Lafrenière.
Also, let’s hope that the Canadiens other star player, team captain Shea Weber, can remain healthy as Price is not the same without him in the line-up. Weber plays huge minutes for the Canadiens, quality minutes, and he’s the undisputed leader at the blueline for the Canadiens. Sid and Geno know it and they will be severely bruised when confronted with the one Mike Babcock nicknamed Man Mountain.
At the time of writing this, everyone is healthy on the Canadiens. Claude Julien is impressed with Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s improvements and speed, and while Phillip Danault will undoubtedly be facing one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, the coach hinted that young Nick Suzuki could be appointed to face one of them as well, citing his maturity level for his young age. The only question mark on the Canadiens right now is the participation of Max Domi, who is plagued with Type-1 Diabetes, a big piece for the Habs’ offense.
The Canadiens’ depth isn’t what it was a few months ago as GM Marc Bergevin, not anticipating COVID-19 and being in the postseason, unloaded Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Marco Scandella and Nick Cousins at trade deadline for draft picks, while his counterpart Jim Rutherford was loading up for a playoffs’ run. The Pens added Jason Zucker, Patrick Marleau and depth forwards Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues to an already strong group. On paper, the Canadiens have no chance of beating the Penguins in a best of five series… just like the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t stand a chance at not only beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, but sweeping them in last year’s playoffs. Fortunately, the game is played on the ice and if the Price is right, one never knows… As Bergevin and the players said many times: Once you’re in, you never know what can happen. Go Habs Go!