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Some early thoughts on a Penguins/Habs series

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Now set in stone, let us start the discussion on the Penguins and Canadiens impending matchup.

NHL: Montreal Canadiens at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With the NHL officially announcing its league and player approved plan to resume play on Tuesday, we now have a clearer picture of what lies ahead for the league in the coming weeks.

Although there were no solid dates or locations for return to play provided by commissioner Gary Bettman, he did state that the 2019-20 regular season is complete, and if the league can begin playing, it will do so beginning directly with the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As everyone already knew coming into Tuesday’s announcement, the playoffs will consist of 24 teams (12 from each conference) with teams seeded 5 through 12 taking part in a best-of-five qualifying round. Those matchups are now set in stone, while the top four teams from each conference will play a round robin for seeding purposes.

What this all means for the Penguins is what we all expected when the first news of a 24-team playoff was gaining steam: a best-of-five matchup with the No. 12 seed Montreal Canadiens.

Now that we know for certain the Penguins and Canadiens will meet, let’s start the discussion on what to possibly expect should the games ever be played.

There was never going to be a perfect solution

Once the NHL season went on pause back in March, it was plainly clear that it was not going to be a two week hiatus like the NHL originally hoped for. At the time, the virus was just popping up in North America and there was no way it was going to be safe to resume professional sports in just 14 days.

When that original two week window passed, talk started to surface about the NHL going directly to the Stanley Cup playoffs once play resumed. Given the standings situation when the season was paused, it was going to take some imagination to create a fair playoff system.

Every team still had 11+ games to play, and many of the teams in the playoff chase were sitting on varying amounts of games played, putting the NHL in a difficult situation. The league couldn’t justify telling one team they will make the playoffs while sacrificing another.

That all led us to our current situation, a 24-team tournament that levels the playing field and allows all deserving sides a shot at the Stanley Cup, even if it means a few undeserving sides will join them.

Anything can happen in a shortened series...

A best-of-three favors the underdogs and a best-of-seven favors the favorites, so it only makes sense that a best-of-five falls somewhere in the middle. It’s short enough that a hot goalie could come in a steal the series but long enough that the talent of the favorites can overwhelm.

Crazy things tend to happen all the time in the Stanley Cup playoffs and the underdog Canadiens winning here wouldn’t be a total shock. All it takes is a bounce here and a bounce there and the next you know your season is over.

...but this is a good matchup for the Penguins

With all that said, the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens are not a great hockey team by any stretch of the imagination. Through 71 games played this season, the Canadiens were 31-31-9 and only three points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils with two more games played.

When the league hit pause back in March, the Canadiens playoff probability sat at a miniscule 0.1% and Montreal’s “Tragic Number” was at 13 and falling. They simply were not a very good team this year and were well outside of the playoff picture before this lifeline.

Can they beat the Penguins in this series? Absolutely, but it will take a whale of an effort from Carey Price and his teammates to knock off this talent laden Penguins team who should be full healthy.

Speaking of Carey Price

Before the NHLPA vote on this plan last week, a report surfaced that the Penguins were going to vote “No” on the idea. The reasoning given for the Penguins disapproval was their supposed fear of facing Carey Price in a shortened series.

This rumor was quickly debunked and we laid out the reasons why it would be foolish to believe the Penguins were afraid of Price. There is no question Carey Price is still a great goaltender and more than capable to stealing a series, but all the evidence shows Price is no longer the goalie he was a few years ago and the team around him inspiries even less confidence.

Healthy Jake

One common factor every team will have once play resumes is a mostly healthy squad to put on the ice. For the Penguins, that means the hopeful return of Jake Guentzel to play alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line.

Before sustaining a shoulder injury in January, Guentzel was the Penguins best player and on pace to reach 40 goals once again. Adding Jake back to this lineup allows the Penguins to shuffle their lines and create an even more potent attack. It’s a true nightmare matchup for the Canadiens and maybe one true blessing in disguise for the Penguins throughout the whole ordeal.

Of course, in typical 2019-20 Penguins fashion, they will still be slightly shorthanded once the playoffs arrive. Dominik Simon will still be out recovering from shoulder surgery he underwent during the pause in play.

Championship teams take care of business

In speaking to the media, Penguins NHLPA representative Kris Letang let on that although the Penguins did vote “Yes” on the return to play proposal, they may not have been 100% in support of it.

A quick glance at the standings may give insight to why the Penguins were not totally on board with the idea of a 24-team playoff. Sitting on 69 games played, the Penguins sit seventh overall in the league in points (86) and points percentage (.623). It seems unfair for a team in that position to be relegated to a play-in series, but that’s how the chips falls.

If the Penguins are the championship caliber team many seem to the think, then the Canadiens should merely serve as a bump in the road on route to their ultimate goal.

No excuses

While every team still playing will have the benefit of renewed health, they will also have a shared rust on the bones from the extended time off. Each team will have an abbreviated training camp to get back in game shape, but nothing will fully prepare them for game action until the puck drops.

If things don’t go the Penguins way against the Canadiens, they can’t point fingers at the long layoff since everyone went through the same ordeal. The only ones to blame would be themselves.

Officiating

How will the referees know when to call a penalty against the Penguins without the Bell Centre crowd there to tell them?

Prediction? Sure, why not

Pens in 3.