MONTREAL — Don’t count me among the people whining about the NHL’s supposed return-to-play plan — a 24-team tournament that will test the “anyone-can-win theory” in a most unprecedented way.
Give me hockey. Give it to me this summer. Give me the chaos this proposed format — as it was reported by Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman on Wednesday — will offer. I’m all for it.
And make no mistake: this will bring chaos.
But chaos is our friend in the sports and entertainment world. We should welcome it with open arms.
Sure, some might think it ridiculous that the Montreal Canadiens — a team that was 10 points out of a playoff spot when the season was paused in the second week of March — would have a chance to play for anything other than a lottery pick, but I’m not one of those people. Put me in the group that is entirely compelled by the possibility that they could knock off a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was 15 points ahead in the standings and possibly go on a run from there.
This is at the foundation of why we watch sports to begin with: to see something completely unpredictable and unimaginable realized. Just the possibility of that is entertaining.
I’m not suggesting the Canadiens will provide that upset come Round 1, but I can guarantee the Penguins will prepare themselves for the possibility that they can.
And if you’re wondering how the Canadiens would approach it, here’s a thought from one of them who preferred not to speculate — this format hasn’t been confirmed by the league nor has it been voted on by the NHLPA, as far as we know — without being granted anonymity.
"Why not us," he asked when we caught up with him Thursday morning. "I don’t think it’s any different than if you’re an eighth seed going into the playoffs. There’s so much parity in the league that on any given night anyone can beat anybody. And we’ve seen eighth seeds win the Stanley Cup. We’ve seen teams that are lower seeded upset higher teams all time. It happens every year. It would obviously be a different circumstance with how short the play-in would be, if it’s a best-of-five. Anything can happen with something short like that."
Not that the player in question is ignoring how the Penguins might feel about it.
"I’m sure if you’re Pittsburgh, you’re not going to be too happy about having a great 70 games and then potentially playing three and being out to a team that wouldn’t necessarily have been in the playoffs in the first place," he said. "But we’ve never had a four-five month layoff in the middle of season, either. Everything about this is unprecedented. It’s kind of the cards that the league’s been dealt right now.
"They would probably say it’s not fair. And in any normal, regular year it wouldn’t be."
But this isn’t any normal, regular year, so let’s cast all that aside and talk about the matchup that could be between these two teams.
The health factor plays large on both sides of it.
For the Penguins, it would mean a return to action for Jake Guentzel, who was scheduled to miss four-to-six months after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair damage from a crash into the boards in a game against the Ottawa Senators in late December.
Considering Guentzel had 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games before suffering the injury, his return would offer a big boost.
Heck, just the idea of all of Pittsburgh’s players being available, after Guentzel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, Kris Letang and Patric Hornqvist all missed significant time due to injury, makes the Penguins that much more prepared to beat anyone.
On Montreal’s side of it, Jonathan Drouin started the season on fire before a wrist injury sidelined him for three months, and the combination of returning from it — and trying to play through an ankle sprain — tamed his game considerably. We can’t think of a player on the Canadiens who was more poised to benefit from an extended pause than Drouin, but Phillip Danault said he used the opening weeks of quarantine to heal several bumps and bruises.
We imagine some time off benefitted Brendan Gallagher for the same reasons. And Tomas Tatar, who was dealing with a lower-body injury when the season was halted, has already confirmed he’ll be ready to play.
How about Shea Weber, who was playing on a badly busted ankle for weeks before play was abruptly stopped? Another Canadiens player we spoke with said the captain has been placing near the top of every Peleton race he, a few teammates and thousands of random people have participated in over the last few weeks. Having him at full strength would obviously be essential for Montreal.
And then there’s the goaltending factor.
"I read stuff about it not being really fair to have a short play-in when there’s teams with a guy like Carey Price who could steal two games or three games if he came in hot," said our anonymous Canadien.
But what about Pittsburgh’s Tristan Jarry? He had a 20-12-1 record and the NHL’s eighth-best save percentage over the first five months of the season. His .921 was significantly better than Price’s .909.
And Jarry would have a two-time Stanley Cup winner in Matt Murray there to back him up versus two goaltenders, in Charlie Lindgren and Cayden Primeau, who have just 26 games of NHL experience between them. That’s a decisive edge to Pittsburgh.
Looking back on the last number of months, the Penguins were also ahead in every other relevant statistical category. They led the season series 2-1, they scored 221 goals to Montreal’s 208, they allowed 24 less goals, their power play was 2.2 per cent more efficient, and their penalty kill was 3.4 per cent more effective.
All of that has to be considered, but there’s only so much we can look back on in order to properly assess how these two teams stack up against each other.
"It’s basically starting a whole new year," said our anonymous Canadien. "It’s like predicting the Stanley Cup winner in July of a regular year. The fact is that there are so many other factors at play.
"Like, none of us have played competitive summer hockey since we were like 15 years old, so who knows what that will look like. And being locked away from the ice — this is the longest I’ve been off the ice since that age. It’s the same for everyone. I don’t know if anyone can accurately predict what will happen."
That’s the fun of it.