There you have it folks, the NHL is back. For many, it’s a very exciting time. For others, it’s a dilemma as summer is a season to spent time outside, doing outdoor activities, even in the evening. Instead, many will be glued to their couches, as they would on a cold winter night. The NHL is happy though, as hotbed hockey markets were added to this COVID-19 Tournament style playoffs, generating more interest (and money) for a product in need. Fans and media are buzzing in places that would otherwise have little interest with their teams eliminated, in markets like New York (Rangers), Minnesota, Chicago and, of course, Montreal.
Regardless of how we see the return of the NHL, legitimate or a gimmick, four months is a long time without seeing these guys on the ice. This time however, everyone will have to watch on TV, internet or listen in on radio, as fans will be lacking at the rink to create the electric atmosphere of playoffs’ hockey in an arena. So prepare the wings, nachos, chips and peanuts, put beer in the fridge and get ready, as our Montreal Canadiens have their sight set to make amend of a disappointing season, hoping to upset the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins.
|Tomas Tatar||Phillip Danault||Brendan Gallagher|
|Jonathan Drouin||Nick Suzuki||Joel Armia|
|Artturi Lehkonen||Jesperi Kotkaniemi||Paul Byron|
|Jordan Weal||Max Domi||Dale Weise|
|Ryan Poehling||Jake Evans||Charles Hudon|
|Ben Chiarot||Shea Weber|
|Brett Kulak||Jeff Petry|
|Xavier Ouellet||Victor Mete|
|Gustav Olofsson||Christian Folin|
|Cale Fleury||Noah Juulsen|
|Alexander Romanov *|
|Carey Price||Cayden Primeau|
|Charlie Lindgren||Michael McNiven|
|Jake Guentzel||Sidney Crosby||Conor Sheary|
|Jason Zucker||Evgeni Malkin||Bryan Rust|
|Patrick Marleau||Jared McCann||Evan Rodrigues|
|Zach Aston-Reese||Teddy Bleuger||Brandon Tanev|
|Sam Lafferty||Anthony Angello||Patrik Hornqvist|
|Adam Johnson||Phil Varone|
|Brian Dumoulin||Kristopher Letang|
|Marcus Pettersson||John Marino|
|Jack Johnson||Justin Schultz|
|Chad Ruhwedel||Kevin Czuzman|
|Pierre-Olivier Joseph||Jusso Riikola|
|Matt Murray||Tristan Jarry|
|Casey DeSmith||Emil Larmi|
Head To Head
At forwards, even the most biased Habs’ fan will be able to recognize, and hopefully admit which team has the upper-hand. No need to be a rocket scientist to see that the Penguins are very top-heavy but their 3rd line is also very, very good too. Pens’ GM Jimmy Rutherford added Jason Zucker, Patrick Marleau and depth forwards Conor Sheary and Evan Rodrigues before trade deadline. Meanwhile, with the Canadiens out of contention, Marc Bergevin did the opposite by unloading Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson, Marco Scandella and Nick Cousins. Let’s just say that the Canadiens’ line of Tatar, Danault and Gallagher will have their hands full trying to defend against either the Crosby line or the Malkin line, while young Suzuki will see that NHL playoffs’ hockey isn’t like Junior hockey.
The defense roster is more equitable between the two teams. The Habs don’t have a Kris Letang, but the Pens don’t have a Shea Weber either. Jeff Petry has also been playing his best hockey in the past two seasons and he provides some quality depth behind his captain on the right side. Ben Chiarot has provided more than what most expected on the blue line, but when you have Xavier Ouellet on your third pairing, and place a young defenseman on his off-side (Mete), you’re looking for trouble… That said, it’s not like the Pens’ defense is any better.
If the Canadiens have any advantage, it’s in front of the net. While Pittsburgh has more experienced depth, they don’t have a Carey Price, picked as the NHL’s best goaltender by his peers in the NHLPA annual poll once again. Matt Murray has the experience and has won it all. But he’s been struggling at times, even losing his spot to Jarry, and he could be held on a short leash by coach Mike Sullivan. Just like the Pens are heavy favourites at forward, the Habs are as much of a favourite in net.
For what it’s worth, the Canadiens played the Penguins three times this past season and played well against them… for the first two games. In my humble opinion, with a playoffs’ spot on the line, Claude Julien’s decisions in the last game against Pittsburgh cost his team any momentum to get into the playoffs. But the teams’ composition was different back then. Today, every team is relatively healthy and none has played in over four months. All have benefited from the same number of days of training camp and, as the cliché goes, it’s a new season. On paper, advantage Pittsburgh. On ice? Let’s wait and see…
In my humble opinion, this series will be decided on special teams. The Penguins’ powerplay is undoubtedly far superior to the Canadiens with a 2% advantage during this past regular season, and have since loaded up up front.
Short-handed, the Pens are also showing better success with a 81.1% success rate, good for 10th in the NHL. The Canadiens had serious issues trying to kill penalties until they acquired Marco Scandella after which they showed some life, but the team reverted back to its old habits once they traded him at trade deadline. They finished the season at 78.7%.
We have seen Claude Julien working the special teams in quite a few occasions during this shorten phase 3 and 4 camp, so he knows how critical special teams will be. The team winning the special teams battle will win this series, in my opinion. Unfortunately for Montreal, Pittsburgh seems to have the advantage in this department. But if my 5 decades of hockey through playing, officiating, coaching and watching have taught me anything at all, it’s that the game is played on the ice. Ask the Tampa Bay Lightning… The consolation prize for the Canadiens if they were to lose to the Pens: the ninth overall pick or a 12.5% chance of drafting Alexis Lafrenière. Go Habs Go!