Even though there is a format in place, matchups set, and hub cities on the horizon I am still in a “I will believe it when I see it” mindset about the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Playoffs. But as long as the matchups are there, I am willing to talk about them. Also for as much as I have enjoyed writing about my random hockey memorabilia and random games from the past I am itching to write about current stuff. So that is what I am going to do.
By now you probably already know the Penguins have a play-in round matchup set with the Montreal Canadiens, a team that under normal circumstances would not have even sniffed the playoffs this season. There was also that speculation and the suggestion that the Penguins were for some reason fearful of this matchup — or not happy about it — because of Carey Price and his potential impact.
Nobody should blame the Penguins, or any team in a similar situation, if they were disappointed with the format. When the 2019-20 season went on pause they had about a 99.1 percent chance of making the playoffs. They were in. Now they have to play a best-of-five series against a team that was for all intents and purposes completely eliminated from playoff contention just to make the actual 16-team playoff field. We should also be very honest about something else here: If the teams in the East and West that ended up being “12th teams in” were not based in Chicago and Montreal they probably would not be taking 24 teams to the “playoffs.” You are kidding yourself if you think they would have taken 24 teams if the 12th place teams were Carolina and Winnipeg in this situation.
That, however, is what it is.
While the records on paper would seem to make the Penguins a massive favorite in this matchup, there are a couple of things that do leave me with a little bit of concern. The play of Price is not necessarily at the top of that list. If this were 2014 or 2015 then maybe he would. At that point he was probably one of the three or four most impactful players in the NHL. He is not that goalie any longer, and has been more “good” than “game-changer” the past couple of years. Does that mean he can not possibly get hot for five games and turn things upside down? Of course not. He absolutely could do that. Any goalie could in that situation. That is why goaltending is the ultimate X-factor in hockey, and especially in the playoffs.
The first thing that stands out as a potential concern is simply the layoff, and how we do not really know how teams and players will respond. This has basically been an entire offseason and even though there is going to be a three-week training camp to get everyone ready, we are going right to the most meaningful games of the season instead of having preseason games and regular season games as a tune-up. This is basically a new season starting.
There is also this: The Canadiens, as a team, may be a little more dangerous than their record indicates.
While their roster may lack depth and has a lot of holes on it, when you look at their actual performance they are actually one of the better 5-on-5 teams in the league. The two things that have held them back have been, 1) Price and their goaltending, and 2) their absolutely dreadful special teams units.
Now, those are some pretty notable flaws. But goaltending can change at any moment, and sometimes special teams impact is negated a bit in the playoffs depending on the season is called.
The bottom line with the Canadiens is they score very favorably in most important 5-on-5 metrics. They have a positive goal differential (it might be even higher with better goaltending behind them) and rank in the top-5 in shot attempt percentage (second), expected goal differential (second). scoring chance percentage (second), and high-danger scoring chance percentage (third). At even-strength, they push the play of the game. They control play as good as any other team in the league. That counts for something.
(All data via Natural Stat Trick)
Montreal may not have the superstar power the Penguins have, but they still have players that can make a difference. Shea Weber was having an outstanding year. Jeff Petry, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher are tremendously underrated players. Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, and Philip Danault are all very good. And yes, Price could always get hot for a few games.
Do I think the Penguins will win? Yes I do. Do I think they should win? They probably should. Should they be trembling at the thought of Price in the other goal crease? No way. But I do not think it is going to be the cakewalk the standings might indicate. Montreal, as well as the playoff format itself, can present some potential problems.