Phase 4 of the NHL Return to Play Plan will see the resumption of games, as the league attempts to accomplish its goal of awarding the 2020 Stanley Cup. Exhibition, qualifier and postseason matches are slated to take place during that time. The 24-team tournament is scheduled to begin August 1, with the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, which will feature 16 teams playing eight best-of-five series. There will also be a round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine the seeding for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
So far we’ve previewed the Edmonton Oilers versus Chicago Blackhawks matchup, the Nashville Predators against Arizona Coyotes, the Vancouver Canucks facing off against the Minnesota Wild, and the Calgary Flames versus the Winnipeg Jets. With all the Western Conference series now previewed, we’re heading to the East with the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Montreal Canadiens.
This is perhaps the most lopsided of all the qualifying round matches. It’s a five-game series featuring rusty players, so anything could happen, but Pittsburgh has to be seen as the heavy favorite going into this one. Consider that Pittsburgh had a great 40-23-6 record despite seeing key player after key player hit by injury. Their top-four forwards alone (Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Sidney Crosby, and Jake Guentzel) combined for 86 missed games. On top of that, each of their top-four defensemen in terms of average minutes (Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, John Marino, and Justin Schultz) spent stints on the sidelines. No matter how many players went down though, the Penguins seemed to be a consistent threat. Imagine what the Penguins can do now that they’re mostly healthy.
Pittsburgh will still be missing a couple players. Nick Bjugstad still appears to be recovering from spinal surgery for a herniated disc and Dominik Simon hasn’t gotten clearance yet from his shoulder injury, but this is the closest to full strength the Penguins have been in a while. They’ll be able to sport a potentially overwhelming offense that’s backed up by a solid defense. Malkin and Crosby will lead the charge once again, but they’ll be backed up by Rust, Guentzel, who were both averaging more than a point-per-game in the regular season. To have four forwards of that caliber is quite the luxury.
There’s depth there too. Jared McCann and Patric Hornqvist can both chip in regularly enough to make a difference. They also added some more weapons close to the deadline between Jason Zucker, Conor Sheary, and Patrick Marleau. Zucker is the best of those three, but Sheary should fit in nicely given his past experience with the Penguins. In fact, Sheary played a meaningful supporting role in the Penguins’ 2016 and 2017 Stanley Cup Championships, so it’s nice for them to get him back. Marleau’s a pretty interesting addition too. Obviously he’ll provide some veteran leadership – not that the Penguins are lacking in that department – but he’s also a good story for his new teammates and fans to latch onto. At the age of 40, this could be Marleau’s last chance to win a championship. If the Penguins need that extra bit of motivation, that narrative to latch onto, Marleau serves that purpose. Even if they don’t, he’s still a reliable bottom-six forward to give them that little extra bit of depth.
If the Penguins have a significant vulnerability, it’s between the pipes. Matt Murray is 25-years-old and already a two-time Stanley Cup champion, but he left plenty to be desired in 2019-20 with a 20-11-5 record, 2.87 GAA, and .899 save percentage in 38 starts. Tristan Jarry did far better with a 20-12-1 record, 2.43 GAA, and .921 save percentage in 33 games, but he has no NHL playoff experience. It’s not clear who the Penguins will start in Game 1 of the qualifying round, but neither option is perfect.
At the other end of the ice will be Carey Price. He didn’t stun this season either with his 27-25-6 record, 2.79 GAA, and .909 save percentage in 58 starts, but the quality of the team in front of him was a factor. If Montreal is going to pull off an upset in this series, it will likely start with Price getting hot right out of the gate. Price can’t win this series on his own, but when he’s at his best he’s a huge difference maker.
He’ll need to be too because the Canadiens don’t have a ton beyond him. Tomas Tatar was their biggest offensive weapon in the regular season with 22 goals and 61 points in 68 contests. It was Tatar’s best season to date and with all due respect to him, he doesn’t stack up well against the Penguins top guns. To make matters worse, the Canadiens lack major weapons beyond him.
Depth in general is a weakness for the Canadiens going into this series. It doesn’t help that they traded away forwards Nick Cousins, Nate Thompson, and Ilya Kovalchuk and defenseman Marco Scandella back in February because at the time it was assumed that the Canadiens wouldn’t be making the playoffs. After all, this was back before the idea of the NHL season being suspended and then it reopening with a 24-team tournament was ever conceived as a scenario that could actually happen. With their 31-31-9 record, Montreal has the worst record of any team included in this tournament.
So while, again, anything is possible, especially in a short series, this is truly the Penguins’ battle to lose. Perhaps that’s the best thing the Canadiens have going for them. With all the pressure on Pittsburgh, they can fully embrace that underdog role.
Players to Watch:
Bryan Rust (PIT) – Rust broke out in 2019-20 with 27 goals and 56 points in 55 contests after falling short of the 40-point milestone in his previous campaigns. The question now is if Rust can keep that up, especially in the playoffs. Rust hasn’t previously been a major offensive force in the postseason, but he’ll be asked to play a far bigger role this time around than he’s ever had.
Max Domi (MON) – Domi was initially questionable to join the Canadiens for the 2020 playoffs. He has Type 1 diabetes, which could put him in a higher risk if he gets the coronavirus. Domi decided to play anyways, but he did miss the start of training camp while the situation was being evaluated, so he might be a bit rustier than the rest of the players.
Jake Guentzel (PIT) – The fact that Guentzel is even playing at all is great news for the Penguins. When Guentzel first had shoulder surgery at the end of December, his availability for the playoffs was in question. Of course, people back then didn’t expect the playoffs to start in August. Still, there’s an even bigger rust concern there than with most players, given that his last game was back on Dec. 30th.
Carey Price (MON) – We already talked about Price, but he really is the Canadiens’ most important player. He also tends to step up in the playoffs. Back in 2017, which was the last time Montreal made the playoffs, he posted a 1.86 GAA and .933 save percentage in six starts against the Rangers, but even that wasn’t enough to get Montreal past the first round. In his career, he’s posted a 25-31-0 record, 2.53 GAA, and .914 save percentage in 60 contests.
Sidney Crosby (PIT) – Crosby is already one of the most successful playoff performers of all-time. The three-time Stanley Cup champion has 66 goals and 186 points in 164 playoff contests. That’s good for 10th place on the all-time list and he could jump up several spots this year. Joe Sakic and Doug Gilmour each finished with 188 points, Brett Hull has 190 points, and Paul Coffey is in sixth place with 196 points.