So much of the talk in the long, winding, and somewhat improbable road to Saturday’s opening game of the series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Pittsburgh Penguins is: How will the Habs stop the Penguins’ two-headed monster of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
Well, to put it simply, with a three-headed monster.
Now I know what you’re thinking: How can the Canadiens gain an advantage by needing to have more of something than the other team, and it’s a valid concern. I, too, have seen their power play after all.
It’s clear that Phillip Danault will lead the charge to shut down the Penguins’ dynamic duo. The problem with that is that Pittsburgh will have last change for the first two games of the best-of-five series. That, and the fact that there are two of them, and only one Danault.
Based on what we have seen leading up to the first game, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi appear to be the options to take some of the toughest matchups. In their exhibition game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Danault took the most shifts against John Tavares’s line, leaving Auston Matthews pretty much split between Danault and the two other youngsters.
Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are definitely the two best two-way centres after Danault. Suzuki is playing with Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia while Kotkaniemi is with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen. That list just happens to include the three most reliable wingers Julien has.
The method to Julien’s madness is that he’s going to throw the two 20-year-olds in the deep end, but with some kind of inflatable device attached that will try its best to keep them afloat. Ultimately, it will be up to the players to tread water.
The Canadiens are in a unique position to do this. They were not supposed to be in the playoffs. Kotkaniemi wasn’t even supposed to be in the NHL again for the remainder of 2019-20. Both players will be put in positions they have rarely been put in at the NHL level.
Expectations aren’t high. Most fans can already name more top-10 Draft prospects than they can name players on Pittsburgh’s second power-play unit.
These centres outperforming the Penguins is not the likely scenario. Pretty much everyone expects the Canadiens to be unable to stop the Penguins. This Montreal team is not built for the playoffs. They traded four players before the trade deadline who will be playing significant roles for higher seeds. No contending team is set to rely on two unproven centres to stop future Hall of Famers.
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Even the 2019-20 Detroit Red Wings beat the Boston Bruins in their first two meetings of the season, after all. There’s always potential for an upset in even the most unlikely of scenarios. I haven’t even mentioned Max Domi — the team’s leading scorer a year ago. While he likely won’t be used for his defensive abilities, he may be the ultimate X-factor.
The likely scenario in this series is that the Canadiens will lose. That means they will have a 12.5% chance at the first overall pick, and a guaranteed top-nine selection. That’s not exactly a worst-case scenario, and many will say that’s actually the best-case scenario for the long-term prospects of the franchise. In that case, actually winning the series can be seen as a negative.
Any Canadiens series win will likely be led Carey Price and some of the other veterans on the team. It also won’t be possible without their two young centres succeeding. As far as worst-case scenarios go, finding out you can rely on two up-and-coming players who can’t legally drink in the United States is a pretty good result.
Even if the Canadiens lose, they win ... if you’re an optimist, anyway.