When fans of the Pittsburgh Penguins think of the matchup with the Montreal Canadiens, their thoughts likely first turn to Carey Price. The goaltender is the face of the franchise, and capable of leading an upset.
On the other side, the first names that come to mind for Habs fans are Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who make up one of the greatest one-two punches at centre in the entire NHL, and a combo that has already reached the ultimate goal on three occasions with Stanley Cups in 2009. 2016, and 2017.
Montreal’s forwards have nowhere near that level of playoff experience, let alone championships. For that reason, Pittsburgh seems to have the upper hand right out of the gate.
Depite Montreal having fewer househould names in the middle of the ice, they do have a player who has proven very effective at shutting down the opposition’s top players, a man who is looking forward to the chance to make that happen.
* status uncertain
Phillip Danault is one of the NHL’s best 200-foot centremen, and the best of all the centres who will play in this qualifier in terms of scoring-chances-for percentage. There aren’t many players who ranked above him in that stat this season, and it’s not particularly close in this series.
What is surprisingly close is the five-on-five offence Danault and Crosby managed this year. Their point totals were the same (47) in 2019 despite Crosby playing 30 fewer games, but the Pens forward’s rate of production at full strength was only about 10% greater than Montreal’s top centre. The injury that forced Crosby to miss that many games may have contributed to that offensive performance, but it was fairly typical of what he’s produced in the past seven years.
The stats foretell the play being controlled by Montreal with Danault and Crosby on the ice, but the Pens slightly outscoring their opponent by taking better advantage of their opportunities. It’s a relatively even matchup that’s not going to be responsible for swinging the series in either team’s favour. Instead, the main head-to-head clash will be Evgeni Malkin’s trio versus Montreal’s second line.
This is where the Canadiens’ youth will be most apparent. Even if Max Domi is cleared and chooses to play, he’s just 25 years old and only in his second year of playing the centre position. Claude Julien preferred Nick Suzuki in that second-line role toward the end of the season. The 20-year-old rookie often looked more confident in the middle, but still has a lot to learn at the position, and a short series will only expose any flaws still in his game.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is the final option to earn those minutes, and the best natural defender of the three despite just turning 20 earlier this month. Perhaps that’s why Julien has been so quick to sing the sophomore’s praises early in training camp, hoping to build him up to the point where he could carry some confidence into that critical matchup, doing his best to limit the Russian centreman and posing at least the threat of a counter-punch.
No matter which player gets the call, a major advantage in the series will go to Pittsburgh when their second trio hops over the boards, and it could very well prove to be the most critical difference in the series.
With the top two lines focused on trying to shut down Pittsburgh’s best players, hopes for offence will fall to the bottom six. Even there the Penguins have an answer in Jared McCann, an up-and-coming centreman who helps solidy that position throughout the lineup. Domi, Suzuki, or Kotkaniemi could hold their own against McCann, but it’s not going to be source of offence to counter what Malkin is able to provide.
The top-line-winger situation is similar to that at centre. Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher are much better at generating chances that anyone on Pittsburgh’s roster, but Jake Guentzel, who recovered from shoulder surgery during the prolonged pause, is better at finishing them off.
Because they were in a position to buy with the trade deadline approaching rather than looking to sell and focus on next seaosn, the Pens were able to mix Jason Zucker’s offence into the chemistry between Malkin and Bryan Rust on the second trio. His addition makes Malkin even more of a threat than he was in the first five months of the season, and further extends that second line’s advantage.
* status uncertain
Montreal’s third-most-productive winger at five-on-five, Artturi Lehkonen, probably can’t go toe-to-toe with those players, but is a quality defensive option to try to limit them, and has always found another level when hockey enters in playoff format. He finished second on the team in points in his only NHL playoff experience a year after setting a new playoff points record for Frölunda, and will do his best to make a positive impact. If Jonathan Drouin is able to revive his early-season form, his speed and skill would be the best combination of talents in Montreal’s middle six.
The strong depth the Canadiens have built up on the wings could allow them to gain the upper hand in a third-line matchup, and that advantage only grows if Patric Hornqvist (who hasn’t been able to participate in training camp to this point) is unable to play. Dominic Simon is also out after a season-ending surgery, giving head coach Mike Sullivan one less option to work with. There will be at least one good winger on both sides of the line for Montreal no matter how the second line shakes out.
Looking at the Penguins’ bottom options, the fourth-line minutes could be an area for Montreal to get some goals back. Left wing is the position with the most depth for the team, and Paul Byron, who was finally looking more like himself after a long recovery from a concussion and then a reaggravated knee injury when the season stopped, will be an important player in that role. Because they traded away Nick Cousins and Ilya Kovalchuk ahead of the deadline, they don’t have enough options to match Byron’s talents on the opposite flank, but Pittsburgh can’t counter with anyone better of their own. Montreal will hope that Byron and whichever centre slots into the bottom-line role will have the synergy to carry the line.
Even after selling, Montreal has decent depth at forward, extending just as far down the order as the higher-seeded Penguins’ does. In bottom-six minutes, the Canadiens may be able to generate a few extra goals over the course of the series.
However, that trickle of offence isn’t going to overcome what Zucker, Malkin, and Rust are able to do on their shifts. Because it’s such a significant advantage, Sullivan may not even try to shake the Danault line off Crosby’s; he may prefer to keep Montreal’s best players occupied by his captain to create more chances for Malkin and co. versus the bottom nine.
One advantage Montreal holds is that they have nothing to lose; no expectations of going beyond this five-game series. With no regard for preserving energy for a deep playoff run, they can give their best players extended minutes to try to find some offence away from the marquee matchups. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Tatar, Danault, and Gallagher playing well over 20 minutes per game. Asking them to prevent Crosby from scoring at one end and then finding their own offence at the other is a daunting task, but one that Julien may consider.
The coach’s toughest job is finding the next three players to face off against Malkin during the series. If those players are able to do the improbable and keep the production of one of the NHL’s most prolific second acts to a minimum, it would be the story of the qualifying round.