The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens will play each other in a best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifier series when the NHL season resumes. Though there is no date for the games to start, two NHL.com writers have already started the debate over which team has the edge in the series.
Mike Zeisberger, staff writer
This matchup has to be a nightmare for Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who may already be having visions of Penguins centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin bearing down on him. Crosby and Malkin have each averaged more than a point per game, with Malkin scoring 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 55 games (1.35 ppg) and Crosby scoring 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games (1.15).
Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday he is optimistic forward Jake Guentzel will be ready to play. Guentzel scored 43 points (20 goals, 23 assists) in 39 games before having shoulder surgery Dec. 31. Because the games will be played at a neutral site, the Canadiens will lose one of the few advantages they had; the raucous, intimidating atmosphere of Bell Centre. The Canadiens have their work cut out for them.
Tim Campbell, staff writer
Opportunity should be a buzzword in Montreal, where the Canadiens were indeed far behind the Penguins in regular-season points percentage (.623 vs. .500) but are now on even ground. Mike mentioned not playing in Bell Centre being a factor for the Canadiens, but I see it a different way. Montreal was 17-14-3 on the road as opposed to 14-17-6 at home, so that tells me the Canadiens shouldn’t have issues at a neutral site. I do agree with Mike that the Canadiens will have the second-best scoring attack in this series, with no point-per-game forwards. They can rely heavily on their top three defensemen (Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Ben Chiarot) and potentially get a draw in the battle between defense groups. What Montreal could exploit is goaltending, where they have the veteran Price, the Hart Trophy and Vezina Trophy winner in 2015. Price, who is 27-25-6 with a 2.79 goals-against average and .909 save percentage this season, has a wealth of experience over his 13 NHL seasons that he could use to substantial advantage, and if he finds his groove before Pittsburgh’s playmakers find theirs, an upset is not out of the question. But Montreal needs to be wary of relying on Price only. It will need a big series from more than one of its other leaders.
The Canadiens struggled at home during the regular season, but we know that Montreal is a different, magical place come playoff time. I also think that all the talk about Montreal having a distinct advantage in goal might be a bit overblown. That’s not to belittle the impact of Price, one of the best goalies of his generation who can win a series practically on his own. But let’s not downplay the Penguins’ duo of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Murray is a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh while Jarry was ninth with a .921 save percentage among NHL goalies to play at least 20 games. The Penguins will be motivated after being swept by the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference First Round last season.
Mike agrees with my point, that the Canadiens will need more than Price to win the series. The Penguins have able and decorated goalies, so there is the Canadiens’ big challenge, to find a way to score enough to contest this series. For that, I’m looking at forwards Brendan Gallagher, Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia. Tatar was Montreal’s scoring leader in the regular season, with 61 points (22 goals, 39 assists) in 68 games. He sustained an upper-body injury March 3 but said April 14 he was cleared to play. And I think Gallagher, who had 43 points (22 goals, 21 assists) in 59 games this season, can take on a major leadership role here, not that he hadn’t already. He’s the type of player a team can rally around. He’s got the ability to contribute offensively, and if he finds his game early, he could bring more than a few teammates to the level of game that’s needed. Certainly, the Penguins won’t like playing against him. Forward Jonathan Drouin, who hasn’t played since Feb. 25 because of an ankle injury, is cleared to play, general manager Marc Bergevin said Wednesday. Drouin, who missed 37 games after having wrist surgery Nov. 19, has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 27 games.