It’s never too early to look ahead and that is especially the case when it comes to playoff hockey. The 24 team format is now official and we now know the play in round matchups. We still don’t know when exactly these games will take place or where they will take place but, we have a rough idea. That being said, we have plenty of information and time to take a look at all of the play in round series. Today, we start in the Eastern Conference as we have the 5th seeded Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the 12th seeded Montreal Canadiens.
A couple things before we fully get into the preview for this series…first and foremost I’m a Philadelphia Flyers fan, so naturally I have a very strong hatred toward the Penguins. As a professional, I will do my best to keep my personal feelings out of this preview so you Penguins fans that read it don’t cry. Second, the one thing about this playoff format I don’t like is the fact that a team like the Canadiens are even getting a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. I hate the fact that a team sitting 10 points out of a playoff spot with 11 games left has a chance to now win the Cup. I don’t want to hear, “Oh well they could’ve won out and made the playoffs if the season didn’t stop.” Bullshit, the Canadiens would’ve needed a damn miracle to pull that off and on top of that they had lost three straight before the season paused. But, here we are and somehow someway Montreal has a chance to bring the Cup back to Canada..
These two teams met three times during the regular season with the Penguins winning 2 out of the three. During their first meeting back in December, the Habs picked up their only win of the season series as they were able to beat the Penguins 4-1 in Pittsburgh snapping their 3 game winning streak. Game 2 of the season series came a little less than a month later in Montreal. The Penguins would win that one 3-2 in Overtime as Brandon Tanev would pick up the Winner. That would be Montreal’s 4th straight loss on a streak that would last 8 games…Yikes. The third and final game of the season series came on Valentines Day, where the Penguins showed no love and beat the Canadiens 4-1 in Pittsburgh. To the surprise of pretty much nobody, the Penguins were able to take care of the Canadiens during the regular season. Will that be the same come their best of 5 series?
Pittsburgh Penguins(40-23-6, 86pts)
Now, on paper the Penguins are a much better team and there really is no denying that. They won back to back Stanley Cups and have been a top team in the east for the last decade(I cringed while typing this.) they could easily be a Stanley Cup favorite coming into this playoff format. Their biggest question mark comes in net believe it or not…Who starts in the playoffs and how short of a leash do they get? Matt Murray is the proven veteran who helped them win those back to back cups, but has struggled this season. Tristan Jarry had a great start to the season but, was starting to come back down to reality before the pause. My opinion is you have to go with the guy that has done it for you before in Matt Murray. I mean Murray is a beast when it comes to the playoffs as he has put up some dominating numbers(2.08 GAA .923 SV% in 15-16 and 1.70 GAA .937 SV% in 16-17.) Granted, last year he wasn’t all that great as they were swept by the Islanders but you have to go with the guy who has the experience over someone who has yet to play a playoff game.
On a positive note for the Penguins, they will be a little bit more healthier coming into these playoffs. Center Jake Guentzel should be back to full strength coming off a shoulder injury. Add him back into the lineup with an already talent group of Crosby, Malkin, Zucker, and Hornqvist they matchup well with just about anybody. We thought Nick Bjugstad would be back but it was announced he was shut down for the season after undergoing surgery for an undisclosed injury.
Their defense to me is what stands out as their biggest weakness…Yes, I know they still have Kris Letang. Other than him though they don’t have anyone who I would fully trust to shutdown the opposition. Brian Dumoulin is solid, but I wouldn’t consider him great by any means. Jack Johnson has been awful since they traded for him and signed him to an extension. He was even one of the more talked about defenseman that we thought could’ve been on the move at the trade deadline. Ultimately, he stayed put and the Penguins will need everything he’s got to keep up with the young and hungry Montreal Canadiens…
Montreal Canadiens(31-31-9, 71pts)
Should they be here? Absolutely not, but they are so let’s just deal with it and who knows maybe they will surprise a lot of people like myself. The bottom line is, this is a young team who struggles to put together consistent performances. Their biggest strengths are going to be between the pipes and their young skilled forwards. In net, Carey Price is a top five goalie in the league when he is on his game. At 32 years old, he has the experience and can easily steal a series when needed. I will say this year he struggled a little bit but, I think a lot of that had to do with the team in front of him. He was missing one of their best defenseman in Shea Weber for a decent part of the year. Other than Weber(When Healthy), Price wasn’t getting much help on the backend. Karl Alzner is average and not what he used to be, then they have Jeff Petry who is also not what he used to be. Put those two with a bunch of younger guys that lack experience and you get what you got this year in Montreal. Weber should be back for the playoffs but Carey Price may need to stand on his head against the high powered Penguins offense.
The forwards are huge positive for the Canadiens, as they have a group of young and hungry guys who can put the puck in the net. Brendan Gallagher to me is one of the most underrated players in the NHL, all he does is produce points. Max Domi has the skill and plays with an edge that you need come playoff time. You can bet your ass he is going to do what he can to get under the skin of guys like Malkin and Crosby. To go along with those two, you add in guys like Jonathan Drouin, Nick Suzuki, and Artturi Lehkonen you have yourself a pretty solid group of forwards. The one thing this group lacks though is the experience. I hate using that as an excuse for any team but, the NHL playoffs really are a different animal and if you’ve never played in them before that inexperience can cost you. One thing that might help them, is the fact that there most likely won’t be fans in attendance as the crowd noise is a huge factor when you’re going into an opposing teams building.
Defense, defense, defense, the biggest concern for the Habs will be how their defense holds up against a high powered offense. The Penguins have talent on all four lines and will roll them with no issues whatsoever. They know they can matchup well against any team when fully healthy and they are going to look to exploit that when they take on Montreal. Having Weber back is huge because even as he gets older he is still a great defenseman when healthy. If Alzner and Petry can play at a decent level and the forwards get back and help out, then they might have a chance. If they can’t do that, and they leave Carey Price out to dry, well then it’ll be a short series.
If I was a betting man, which I am…the Penguins are my lock to win in the qualifying round. As much as I fucking hate to say it (See Pens fans I can be unbiased.)there is zero chance they should lose to the Canadiens. They are too talented and too experienced to let a team that should even be there beat them in the first round.
Penguins 3-0(If best of 5) 4-1 (If best of 7)
-Up next we start the Western Conference as we look ahead to the Oilers vs Blackhawks matchup..