It’s finally the week of for the NHL. Tomorrow we’ll see the last dress rehearsal with the Penguins and Flyers making acquaintances once more and then it’ll be onto Saturday for the Pens and Montreal Canadiens in a best of five series.
As such, get ready for a boatload of previews this week in lead up.
Here’s five points to think about for the on ice action, other than just the general “how does each team deal with playing in isolation in an empty, neutral location after almost five months of being off due to a global pandemic”, which frankly just feels like a wild guess at this point.
#1 Will Pens’ depth shine through, augmented by matchups?
Montreal has an excellent defensive center in Phillip Danault, perhaps one of the more unheralded players around the league for his all-around play. But Danault can’t check Sidney Crosby AND Evgeni Malkin as Montreal coach Claude Julien noted earlier this month.
“Mike Sullivan is aware that we would love to use Danault’s trio against Crosby and Malkin,” noted Julien. I see it will be a difficult challenge when we don’t have the last change.”
The Pens basically having two top lines is a huge edge, especially when looking at the Montreal depth defensemen.
By having a better record, the Pens have “home ice advantage” For Games 1, 2 and 5 in the series. While there’s obviously no crowd or venue edge with both teams playing in Toronto, it is still a crucial distinction since the “home” coach gets last change and can match lines. Pittsburgh probably figures to use the excellent defensive checking line of Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev when they have last change to match the Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar line.
That top Montreal line contains the only three players who had above a 2.0 5v5 P/60 (see a great preview on the matter from Habs Eyes on the Prize here). The Pens, by contrast, had seven forwards above 2 P/60. So if the Pens’ grinders can neutralize the Habs’ top line, that frees up the Crosby and Malkin groups, all powerhouse offensive players, to play against more inexperienced and ineffective depth MTL players.
#2 Special teams advantage for Pittsburgh
Based on the 2019-20 regular season stats, this should be another wide edge for Pittsburgh. The Pens and Habs both had middling power plays — Pittsburgh ranked 16th in the league at 19.9%, Montreal was 22nd at 17.7%.
The big difference shows up on the penalty kill. The Pens’ 82.1% rate ranked tied-8th, the Canadiens at 78.7% was down at 19th.
If Pittsburgh can continue that play (strong PK shutting down a weak power play), that tips the ice all the further in their advantage.
There’s probably also good reason to think that due to a rotation of injuries that the Penguins haven’t really had Crosby, Malkin, Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist all on the ice at the same time for a power play besides a handful of games in November. That Pittsburgh number from the season could be improved based on what should be increased talent levels now.
Another reason for optimism, as our pals at EOTP noted, is that the Pens’ strength on the PP — crashing the net and scoring from in close — matches up precisely with Montreal’s weakness on the PK in an inability to defend the front of the net well.
This is a very pretty sight for the Pens. It could be a big series for Patric Hornqvist and Jake Guentzel near the front of the net, wreaking havoc there, if the above picture holds. Kinda gives PIT/NYR vibes from 2016 in that sense..
#3 Montreal’s shot volume vs the Pens shot quality
As we’ve talked about a couple of weeks ago, the Canadiens are a huge shot volume team. They throw pucks on net from everywhere, though little from dangerous zones. Montreal as constructed right now isn’t blessed with a lot of talent or finishing ability, but they’re not shy about pumping up shot totals as much as they can. When pucks are flying towards the net, funny things can happen with bounces and deflections.
As mentioned above in point two, since Montreal can’t count on the power play to be a decisive weapon with the way it functioned this season, it only emphasizes 5-on-5 play more for them as a crucial component of the game to generate offense.
As Dom Lusczysyn noted in his predictably informative and excellent series preview of his own at The Athletic — Montreal was taking more than 10 shots per 60 than the Pens, yet the Pens still scored more goals than the Habs this season. That’s really telling about the styles and strength of both teams.
For MTL, it’s quantity. For the Pens, it’s quality. Given that Matt Murray wasn’t very sharp in the regular season, that presents an interesting dichotomy. Shoddy goaltending could always sink any NHL team in the playoffs, and Montreal’s style of not passing up many pucks will be an interesting challenge for Murray.
#4 Matt Murray’s leash
There’s nothing official, but most expect Matt Murray to be the choice to start the series. Whether or not he finishes the series depends on what happens out there. Would a loss in Game 1 mean the Pens go to Tristan Jarry for Game 2? Doesn’t feel impossible. Murray burned his good will by having some of the worst goalie stats vs expectation and finishing with a save percentage under .900%.
In some ways Murray could be one of the more fascinating players of the whole playoffs, just based on how variable his paths could be. He could take the Pens on a long run, or quickly get stapled to the bench that could perhaps lead to an off-season departure.
In a week, Murray could have played well enough to win games and build up confidence, be in a battle, or get shuffled out. Lots of differences there, and the first couple games and even periods will be very important to establish just what kind of immediate future the Pens are looking at.
#5 Short series factors
While it can be difficult, if not impossible, to forecast how each team will adapt and respond to the unique and totally new concept of playing all games in a bubble, no fans, neutral site, one item that can be measured is the play-in format’s shortened series. Pittsburgh/Montreal will be a best of 5 series, and not the typical, standard NHL series length of 7.
As such, stakes are higher and there is less margin for error. Lose Game 1 and it’s like being down 0-2 in a normal series, since there’s only two more losses away from elimination. This being a short series can only benefit Montreal, a team that anyone really has to consider a substantial underdog in the sense of overall strength of the two teams on paper.
Pittsburgh not only lost a series last year against an Islander team that looked worse than them, but also got swept. It felt like it got away from them quickly and before they knew what hit them, they were eliminated. That feeling is a bit tough to shake right now as the Pens have to stare down an even shorter series. There are certainly many differences between NYI/MTL (and the Pens this season from last are different too), but it just goes to show that funny results can happen in a best of 7 series. Make it a best of 5, and even more craziness could be at hand due to the random variance of luck, bounces and officiating that can shape any given game.