Here’s a line from Claude Julien that sums up what’s really at stake for the Montreal Canadiens this summer:
“We are what we are, we have what we have,” the coach said on Saturday. “We’re a young team, we’ve got a lot of young players in. We want to give them some playoff experience and some opportunities to help us grow as a team and as an organization.”
And those guys the Canadiens are playing?
Well, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in it for one thing and one thing only: that 35-pound silver trophy they hoisted in 2016 and 2017.
This is a David versus Goliath matchup, the 24th-ranked team in a 24-team tournament up against a Penguins team that’s one of the deepest, most talented and experienced groups competing. We know what should happen, but the beauty of it is that we don’t know what will happen—especially since this post-season is being played in the midst of a global pandemic, with no fans in attendance and after a four-month break in the action.
(5-on-5 via Natural Stat Trick)
Canadiens: 54.43 CF% (2nd), 50.87 GF% (13th), 91.70 SV% (17th), 7.49 SH% (25th), .992 PDO (26th)
Penguins: 50.86 CF% (11th), 52.25 GF% (9th), 91.54 (20th), 8.71 SH% (8th), 1.002 PDO (14th)
Canadiens: 17.7 PP% (22nd), 78.7 PK% (19th), 208 GF (18th), 220 GA (23rd)
Penguins: 19.9 PP% (16th), 82.1 PK% (10th), 221 GF (13th), 196 GA (11th)
You won’t find a dramatic difference between the Canadiens and Penguins just by staring at the numbers. None of them point to one team being significantly better than the other.
But one look at the rosters tells a markedly different story.
This is a juggernaut Penguins team, one that stacks up on paper about as well as any other edition we’ve seen since 2005—and that’s saying something for an organization that has been to four Stanley Cup finals and won three of them since then.
As for the Canadiens, let’s just say they’ve earned their ranking in this tournament. Their centre line of Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Max Domi and Jesperi Kotkaniemi isn’t even in the same stratosphere as a Pittsburgh one that relies on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, then has Jared McCann and Teddy Blueger as depth options. And their speed on the wing—represented by Jonathan Drouin, Paul Byron, Artturi Lehkonen, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher—is running up against the prolific scoring of Jake Guentzel, Jason Zucker, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist and Patrick Marleau.
If the discrepancy up front is as large as it appears to be, the gap isn’t too big on the back end. However, we’d still give the edge to the Penguins there because of depth, experience, and balance on each pairing.
As far as goaltending is concerned, it’s all a question of what you value most.
You might say that Carey Price gives the Canadiens an edge. He is the most talented goaltender in this series and widely considered by his peers to be the best in the world.
But Price is up against two-time Stanley Cup winner Matt Murray, and backup Tristan Jarry played like a Vezina Trophy candidate for a significant portion of this season. Price, meantime, is being backed up by two goaltenders — Charlie Lindgren and Cayden Primeau — who have just four games of professional playoff experience between them.
Canadiens X-Factor: Nick Suzuki
An odd choice, some might say, because we all know that Price holds the keys to the Canadiens’ success. But the 20-year-old Suzuki is going to be forced to play much of his ice-time against either Crosby or Malkin, and if he somehow comes out on top against either one, he could play a massive role in shifting the series Montreal’s way.
Penguins X-Factor: Matt Murray
Assuming he starts — and he should considering Murray’s a two-time Cup champion with a 28-19 record and .921 save percentage in 48 playoff appearances — Murray will be under the gun right away.
This is the Penguins’ series to lose and if Murray falters out of the gate, the pressure they’re already under as heavy favourites will ramp up significantly. If he holds the fort and helps them off to a strong start, they’ll be that much harder to stop.
The biggest question facing the Canadiens is: How far can the us-against-the-world mentality take them?
Compared to their competition, Montreal is short on talent and experience. Odds-makers are giving them a marginal chance of winning this series and virtually no chance of winning the Cup.
“I’ve got no problem with that,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber on Saturday. “We can be underdogs all day, that’s fine. It’s a situation that we’ve all been in before, and nobody should take offence to that. No one should listen to that. I think the belief in this room is anything can happen. You look at the history of playoffs, of the Stanley Cup over the years, and strange things have happened that teams that get on a roll at the right time, (get) good goaltending and stay healthy…you just never know what can happen.”
The biggest question facing the Penguins is: How healthy is Sidney Crosby?
The Penguins’ captain has been in and out of action over the past two weeks and some have suggested that might be related to the surgery he had to repair a sports hernia earlier this season. That surgery sidelined him for 28 games between November and January.
If Crosby’s playing at anything less than 100 per cent — especially ahead of what would have to be a five-series run for the Penguins to win the Cup — that could prove to be an issue. And if he misses any of the upcoming games, that could change the entire complexion of this first series.