Line 1: Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher
This one’s a no-brainer. One of the best 5-on-5 and two-way lines in the NHL. The chemistry has been built over two seasons and there’s no reason to disrupt it.
Line 2: Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Joel Armia
Even if Nick Suzuki is a rookie, he’s Montreal’s second-most versatile centre. And it’s clear Canadiens coach Claude Julien views him that way, hence his elevated ice-time from early on in the season straight through March.
Give Suzuki Drouin’s speed and skill on the left, and Armia’s puck protection ability and shot on the right, and you have the makings of a strong line.
Line 3: Paul Byron-Max Domi-Artturi Lehkonen
I think there’s a chemistry factor in the assembly of this line, too. Lehkonen and Domi played over 400 minutes at 5-on-5 together this past season, and they complement each other well. Add in Byron’s speed and tenacity and you’ve got a line that can be effective on both sides.
It’s right here, in the middle six, where you could have the most variance between what I would do and what Julien likely will. I’ve assembled Lines 2 and 3 the way I think he would, but I’d consider playing Drouin with Domi and Byron, and having Lehkonen play with Suzuki and Armia.
Line 4: Jordan Weal-Jake Evans-Dale Weise
OK, this is where it gets complicated. I would say that this is the line Julien starts off with on paper, but competition in camp is going to determine how it’s eventually assembled for the play-in.
At first glance, it might seem curious to some to see Weal lined up on the left, but Weal told me he has played a great deal of his professional career at that position, and that it’s his position of preference — even if we haven’t seen him there for Montreal.
Also, even if Weal has been an alternate in Julien’s lineup this season, I think he has to play for two reasons: 1) he’s a second faceoff man on a line centred by a rookie in Evans, and 2) he can execute that task and be an effective player around the net on the power play.
Engels also mentions that Jesperi Kotkaniemi (spleen injury) and Ryan Poehling could also be in the picture at some point too.
D1: Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber
I think Julien is going this way, and the minutes for these two are going to be huge. On the one hand, you have to wonder if they’ll: a) come out of the gate on top of their respective games (Chiarot has told me he’s always been a slow starter, and big men — and Weber’s certainly a big man — tend to take a couple of weeks before their motors are running at full steam), and b) if they have the speed to handle what will be coming at them from Pittsburgh’s top two lines..
D2: Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry
This pairing’s assembly and success is contingent on Kulak bringing an assertive game to camp and carrying the type of confidence that initially made him an under-the-radar acquisition for the Canadiens prior to the 2018-19 season. We saw glimpses of that Kulak this season, but not often enough.
D3: Victor Mete-Noah Juulsen
I know what you’re thinking: is Juulsen going from playing one AHL game in March, after months of inactivity due to migraines and vision issues, straight onto Montreal’s third pairing?
It’s not a bad lineup by Montreal, but you can already see some cracks forming. Danault is one of the best defensive centers in the league, he will likely be checking against Sidney Crosby. That leaves a rookie (and a defenseman in Brett Kulak) to face Evgeni Malkin, when they really don’t have much business in that role. Down the ice the Pens are stronger individually as third and fourth line players, but that output can always be spotty, especially in a short series.
It’s also interesting on how the Habs’ defenders are on the bigger side, the Pens have been able to revert back to more of a speed game with recent additions of players like Jason Zucker, Conor Sheary (and Jake Guentzel) which seems favorable for Pittsburgh as well. Getting legs back and pushing the pace and tempo of the game will be an important aspect of the series. If the Pens can do that, you would think their odds improve even further. But with a 4-5 month layoff, who knows how or what any semblance of speed, endurance and the overall shape that the team will be in.
Nice to see an outlook of what Pittsburgh will be facing. On paper it still looks from top to bottom that the Penguins will be a better team, but the Canadiens still have NHL talent and has an opportunity to just be involved in this format. The only thing left is the waiting to see if they get back on the ice.