Normally, teams and players would have had a full season to get in shape and ready for the gruelling NHL Playoffs. Some players would be banged up, some teams would be more tired than others and all things would not be equal. You would have home teams, visitors in far from welcoming rinks, you’d have noise and more noise. The atmosphere would be electric and players would be chomping at the bit to get going. Mostly, fans would be pumped to rally behind their team, to fill the rink, to drink the Kool-Aid and celebrate in the streets before and after games. But today’s reality and return to play procedures are not normal circumstances, and who knows what will or could happen.
In normal time, the playoffs would be done and over with by now and the NHL would have crowned their Stanley Cup champions a month ago. Instead, teams have all been off since mid-March and players are trying to get back not only into shape, but in playoffs’ shape and that’s not an easy task. Any NHL fan will be able to tell you that the first month or two of a season sees a lot of broken plays, missed passes, fanned on shots, huffing and puffing players trying to get in “game shape” and get their timing right. It’s not until November usually until we start seeing the highlight reel and the true talent this league has to offer. So what are we to expect when they step into no transition period, right into the heaviest part of competition? Your guess is as good as mine. Do anticipate several groin pulls and other injuries, some potentially quite serious. Greed is creating less than normal times.
Habs Wild Cards
We all know the firepower the Pittsburgh Penguins possess. Starting up the middle with the dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, team GM Jim Rutherford has loaded up at the last trade deadline, adding added Jason Zucker, Patrick Marleau and depth forwards Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues. With the Canadiens out of contention, Marc Bergevin did the opposite by unloading Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Marco Scandella and Nick Cousins at trade deadline for draft picks. So if you ask anyone in hockey, they will tell you that not only are the 7th overall Pens heavy favourites, but they’re almost a shoe-in to beat the NHL’s 24th seed in this series.
But wait… if my five decades as a Habs’ fan have taught me anything at all, it’s that hockey is played on the ice, not on paper, and that anything can happen. Both teams will be healthy (hopefully) and well rested. Both teams will be rusty to start. Both teams have the same risk of injuries to key players, which could swing the balance one way or another. And as touched on recently, the Pens have Carey Price living rent-free in their heads.
But there’s more than that. The Canadiens were without Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron for an extended period of time and while Byron was struggling finding his groove skating on one leg, Drouin was having the best start of his career before being sidelined. From what we’re reading so far since players have stepped back onto the ice, he’s been working extremely hard and is looking good. We can fully expect Drouin to be a Wild Card for the Canadiens if they’re going to created the upset and with his 14 points in 17 playoffs games in his last participation in the playoffs, he has shown being capable of shining when it truly counts.
Another potential Wild Card for the Canadiens is Joel Armia. He’s not without reminding me of a former Canadiens, John Leclair: big, strong, shifty, good skater, he has shown this season being able to contribute more on offense. He’s built for the playoffs and this could be his time to shine. Healthy, the Habs are a three-line deep team on offense, with a strong fourth line. Their issue would be their depth in the event of injuries, as most of their top prospects aren’t NHL ready just quite yet.
I have a third Wild Card for Claude Julien‘s team and coincidently, he’s also a native of Finland: Artturi Lehkonen. Another big body who plays physical and gets plenty of scoring opportunities. If he can start capitalizing on some of those quality scoring chances, he could very well be a huge difference maker for the Habs, in addition to his well known defensive prowess and capability of moving up and down the line-up as need be.
Isn’t it great to see once highly ranked defense prospect Noah Juulsen not only being back with the team, but impressing with his play? I know that I’m not the only Habs’ fan pulling for this guy to make it, after this fluky incident threatening his career… A couple of days ago, the Canadiens received a shot of energy in the arm when one of their top forwards, Max Domi, made the decision to join the team after analysing the risk of being exposed to COVID-19… And today, it was also nice to see Phillip Danault, Ryan Poehling, Victor Mete, Cale Fleury and Cayden Primeau rejoining the group as well, along with Brett Kulak and Xavier Ouellet who have been segregated since the start of camp. We’re finally starting to see the entire group, the whole picture for the Canadiens.
While I would hate to see Montreal risk losing on their 12.5% chances of drafting local talent Alexis Lafrenière by winning this series against Pittsburgh, it’s also very hard as a hardcore fan to cheer against them. Either way, this experience will go a long way for the young Canadiens, giving many of them a first taste at what NHL Playoffs’ hockey is all about. Go Habs Go!