Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins Series Preview: Carey Price Better be Good
It’s official: starting on August 1st, the Montreal Canadiens will take part in a best-of-five play-in series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, to decide who will join the regular 16-team playoffs.
Which begs the question: what are the Canadiens even doing here?
The Montreal Canadiens were 24th in the league and 10 points out of a playoff spot when the season was paused, and well on their way to a lottery pick. The fact that they will play playoff games this summer astonishes me. The Canadiens should consider themselves lucky that they are playing any kind of meaningful games this season. However, the matchup is not easy: their opponent is the star-studded Pittsburgh Penguins.
As a Habs fan, while looking up and down this lineup I feel sick to my stomach. This roster contains Sidney Crosby (need I say more?), Evgeni Malkin (led team with 74 points – in 55 games), Jake Guentzel (over a point per game) and Bryan Rust (over a point per game). There are also solid forwards like Patric Hornqvist, Jason Zucker and Jared McCann. And that was just the forwards!
The Penguins’ defence somehow fought its way through numerous injuries this season, which speaks to its remarkable depth. Led by veteran Kris Letang, the defence is a perfect mix of seasoned veterans with playoff experience and young, puck-moving defensemen of the future.
In goal, Matt Murray struggled at times this year but still was league-average, at the very least. Tristan Jarry appears to be the goalie of the future for the Penguins, and the team can count on him to pull through when Murray needs a rest. The two make an excellent tandem.
The thing that really shows the Penguins’ superiority is their position in the standings. They were third place in a competitive Metropolitan Division, and they were 15 points clear of the Montreal Canadiens. How can the Canadiens stand a chance in this series?
Keys to the Series for the Montreal Canadiens:
Matchups – For a Canadiens team that is quite outmatched offensively, especially in the top-six, they need to settle on matchups that will benefit them. Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher are an excellent shutdown line. They have excelled against many of the league’s top lines. They are a lock to play against Sidney Crosby and his line. Danault – already a great centre - has a chance to prove himself as one of the premier shutdown centres in this league. If he can stick to Crosby like glue and shut him down, he solidifies himself as a top-tier defensive centre.
Any matchup with Evgeni Malkin’s line depends on Max Domi’s ability to play. Domi, who is a type-1 diabetic, is at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, and therefore must be cleared to play by team doctors. If Domi can play, the obvious choice would be to play him against Malkin. However, I think that this is unwise. Nick Suzuki is a better defensive centre than Max Domi. If you look at the team save percentage while each player is on the ice, the Canadiens have a higher save percentage when Suzuki is on the ice than when Domi is out there. Also, allowing Domi to play as a third-line centre or winger gives the Canadiens a more offensive option to play against the Penguins’ third line and bottom defensive pairing. Domi would be counted on to capitalize on the absence of Crosby and Malkin, and score a few goals. Meanwhile, any line that is supposed to shut down Evgeni Malkin needs defensive specialist Artturi Lehkonen, and if things get physical, Joel Armia can use his big body to protect the slim Suzuki. This line will not provide a lot of offense, but that’s not its purpose. This line needs to shut down Malkin and Company and keep the puck out of its own net.
As for the defence, Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot have to shut down Crosby, while Jeff Petry and Victor Mete can take care of Evgeni Malkin. I would suggest double-shifting Weber and Chiarot so that they’re always on with Crosby.
Possession – The Penguins are superior in every relevant statistic except for one: puck possession. That’s not surprising, considering the Canadiens were second in the league in puck possession. The Canadiens need to use this to their advantage. It doesn’t matter how good you are at scoring if you don’t have the puck. The Penguins are great at scoring, so the Canadiens need to play a stingy possession game. This means quick puck movement, minimizing risky plays, and excellent positioning. Also, the Canadiens need to maximize time in the offensive zone, and avoid the common mistake of sending players too deep into the zone. This mistake usually provides an odd-man rush the other way.
Discipline – The Canadiens’ penalty kill is atrocious (79% success rate). The Penguins’ power play is very good (20% success rate). Logically, one can conclude that the Canadiens need to minimize the time they spend in the penalty box. The Canadiens are typically quite disciplined, but some players are known to take dumb penalties (looking at you, Max Domi). Penalties should only be taken when saving a goal or sticking up for a teammate. If I’m Claude Julien, I would go really hard on players who take dumb penalties. Make sure that the players get the message: control yourselves.
Mindset – one intangible in this series that is not talked about often enough is the pressure. Underdogs can really benefit from all the pressure being on the other team. The key is to act publicly like the underdog - in order to increase the pressure on the favourite - but to never believe it for a second. The Columbus Blue Jackets played the underdog card last year against the Tampa Bay Lightning, and swept the Lightning in four games. In the 2010 Olympics, Team USA wasn’t expected to make it very far. Their public statements were all to the effect of “what are we doing here?” but they never believed it for a second. That team came within one goal of the gold medal. The Canadiens are definitely playing the underdog card. A prevailing statement in their press conferences is “we’re just fortunate to be in this position.” This places the onus firmly on the Penguins to win this series. That kind of pressure can really topple a team, even one as experienced and battle-tested as the Penguins. This intangible is often overlooked, but those around the game know how much pressure affects players. When I was a goalie for the JCC Vaughan Beast, I played much better when I was told that our opponent was a powerhouse that had the potential to light me up, than when I was told that our opponent sucked and that the game was mine to lose.
And the final key…
Carey Price – The Canadiens can match lines up perfectly, they can keep the puck away from the Penguins, they can stay out of the box, and they can play the underdog card, but if Carey Price isn’t playing well, they don’t stand a chance. Which Carey Price will we see in this series? The last time he played in the summer was the World Cup of Hockey, where he was exceptional. Will we see this Carey Price? Will we see the October Carey Price, who is typically league average? And heaven forbid we see the November Carey Price, who is atrocious. If the Canadiens want to win this series, they need the Carey Price that we see from December to the end of the season. That Carey Price can be counted on to be essential in any success enjoyed by the Canadiens.
The Big Question: Throw the Series for a Shot at Lafrenière?
Online, I have heard many Canadiens fans (Montreal Gazette columnist Brendan Kelly among them) express their desire for the Canadiens to tank the series in order to have a 12.5% chance at the first overall pick in the NHL Draft, which would land them Alexis Lafrenière.
I would like to make one thing quite clear to Brendan Kelly and every other so-called fan that is calling for a thrown series: no self-respecting professional hockey franchise ever intentionally loses a playoff series.
The only time I would consider tanking a playoff series is if the Canadiens are guaranteed the number-one pick, and that’s not possible. This notion of throwing the series is wrong on so many levels.
From a player point of view, any student of the game will tell you that the players always put in 110%, playoff-bound or not. Tanking is not a consideration for players. Their only goal is the Stanley Cup. How would they take it, then, if the only chance they have at the Cup this year isn’t capitalized upon by management? How would the players react if there were a concerted effort by GM Marc Bergevin to ice a subpar roster and deny the players a possibility of a playoff run? Look at the Buffalo Sabres for your answer. The losing culture and obsession with tanking ran Ryan O’Reilly out of town and has severely pissed off Jack Eichel. How would it be if Carey Price, realizing this is a tank job, stormed off the ice, glared at coach Claude Julien and informed team president Geoff Molson that he had just played his last game for the Canadiens? There would be chaos, and the Canadiens would be ruined. Players will not accept a tank job.
From a management perspective, both Marc Bergevin and Claude Julien would love to have a French-Canadian star like Lafrenière on their team. However, both are in danger of losing their jobs if the Canadiens do worse than expected against the Penguins, so tanking is not an option. As well, Julien himself has said that the best way to develop their young players is to surround them with a winning culture, and giving them the benefit of playoff experience. Players like Domi, Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Poehling and Mete need that experience, and tanking the series does not give them that benefit.
In conclusion, throwing the series is not an option, especially for only a 12.5% chance at the top pick. To put that in perspective, there is an 87.5% chance that the Canadiens won’t get the top pick. I’ll take a shot at the Stanley Cup any day of the week.
The Canadiens fight hard, and take the Penguins to the full five games, but they eventually lose. The Penguins are just too good. If I’m right in my prediction, I will cover the Winnipeg Jets for the remainder of the playoffs, assuming they make it past the play-in round, of course.
Win or lose, I’m just happy to see Les Boys play some meaningful, high-stakes hockey.
This will be, without a doubt, the most chaotic, sloppy, volatile, surprise-filled playoff in NHL history.
And that’s awesome.
Go Habs Go.
Signed, Le Bo