Stanley Cup Qualifiers: Game 1
How to watch
Start time: 8:00 PM EDT / 5:00 PM PDT
In Canada: CBC, Sportsnet (English), TVA Sports (French)
In the US: NBC
Streaming: Sportsnet Now
The Canadiens were looking at the prospect of playing the Buffalo Sabres in the 72nd game of the regular season when COVID-19 hit North America in a big way: knocking an NBA star out of action, then just several hours later taking the whole league with it, and the entirety of professional sports in the following days. Montreal learned that the season was going to be put on “pause,” and it soon seemed obvious that the regular season would not resume.
Nowhere close to a playoff spot, many of the players assumed their 2019-20 campaigns were over, and were faced with a long off-season. Then things changed, and the eventual plan was to have a 24-team post-season, giving eight clubs that weren’t in playoff positions a shot to make it after all. The Canadiens were the final one to make the cut.
We’ve known for a long time that their opponent for this play-in series would be the Penguins. Since that report and a quick acceptance of the proposed format, we’ve had plenty of time to dissect the matchup in just about every possible detail. Now rather than have to project, analyze, and opine on how the series will play out, the team gets down to the business of actually playing the games tonight.
Tale of the Tape
|54.4% (2nd)||Corsi-for pct.||50.9% (11th)|
|2.93 (19th)||Goals per game||3.20 (10th)|
|3.10 (19th)||Goals against per game||2.84 (12th)|
|17.7% (22nd)||PP%||19.9% (16th)|
|78.7% (19th)||PK%||82.1% (10th)|
Montreal did well against Pittsburgh in three games during the regular season, especially for a club that ended up 12th in the Eastern Conference. They started off with a result that was convincing on the scoreboard, though they were significantly outshot in a 4-1 win on December 10. It was a similar story in early January, but that time the Penguins got the win, needing overtime to knock off Carey Price and the Habs for the first time. The final meeting of the year came after the trade deadline, and in that contest Montreal was the team to hold a significant edge on the shot counter, but the Penguins were the club the grab a 4-1 win.
Those outcomes of an up-and-down series between two teams that many feel underachieved this year is why so much of the attention of the 16-team qualification round has been focused on this series. You can’t compare the rosters and come to the conclusion that Montreal has the better team, but you also can’t say with certainty that the Penguins are going to get the maximum out of their squad.
The development in training camp of an injury to Sidney Crosby, this after he required surgery earlier in the season, adds a bit more uncertainty to the series. Pittsburgh was looking at having a fully healthy roster for perhaps the first time all season, which should give them a significant edge over a team that had an inferior roster even before they sold off some veterans at the deadline, but now that is back up in the air again.
It’s also true that neither club had a particularly good exhibition game to prepare for their series. Pittsburgh looked somewhat off versus a Philadelphia Flyers team that isn’t even competing in an elimination series this weekend. The Penguins fell to the Flyers largely because they couldn’t get their power play to work — another head-scratcher for that stacked roster — and go into the post-season without much confidence in their man advantage. At least the Canadiens have no expectations for their man advantage. Just finishing even with no short-handed goals allowed would be a significant improvement over what they managed in their tune-up game on Tuesday.
However, what happened in the past isn’t going to factor into the result of tonight’s game, or the series’ outcome. It can help with those predictions to get a fair idea of how the clubs match up, but ultimately it can take just one bounce either way to decide a game, and in a best-of-five series that first win is a big one. Whether it’s a rare goal on the power play for one of these teams, a parting of the defence on a late offensive rush, or something completely different, any team can beat any other on any given Saturday, and that’s what keeps fans coming back.