Before the standard 16-team NHL Playoffs begin this year, first there will be a qualification round featuring the teams that finished fifth to 12th in each conference. The decision to include eight more teams took Montreal from a club believing that the pandemic had brought about an early summer break to one now with a shot at winning the Stanley Cup.
For the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of only seven teams with 40 wins when the season was stopped, the announcement wasn’t so welcome. Instead of looking ahead to a run that could earn them a third Cup in five years, there’s now a chance that they won’t make the official post-season at all.
Results will be magnified in the best-of-five play-in round, where losing just the opening game can put a team close to elimination. Winning three games will require coaching staffs to get the best out of the players quickly, and making sure they select the right one out of the pool of players available to them.
Montreal won’t have to fret over a decision on who to play in the net. Carey Price is going to start every game the team plays, and not even the other netminders in the organization are thinking otherwise. Win or lose, it will be with the NHL’s highest-paid goalie between the pipes.
Pittsburgh has options at that critical position. The regular-season starts were split between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, and either one could get the call versus Montreal. However, an interview in mid-June with Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan revealed that he was heavily leaning toward Murray to be his man throughout the post-season, hoping for the form he showed in guiding the club to back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017.
The concern for Pittsburgh is that he didn’t display that form in the last two playoff runs, and this season dipped below a .900 save percentage for the first time in his career. Struggling to start the year, Jarry took over as the starter in late November, and the results of that change were quite substantial.
Jarry ranked third among all the goaltenders in the Eastern Conference’s 12-team pool to start at least 30 games, sporting a save percentage of .921. Tha places him above Price, who in turn — even with an off year — was more effective than Murray.
Things don’t change much looking at goals saved above average (GSAA) per 60 minutes, a metric largely based on save percentage but that also factors in a goalie’s work load. Price is slightly below average by either stat, while Jarry was clearly the more reliable goalie for Pittsburgh.
A number representing a full-season performance tells the overall story, but doesn’t show hot and cold streaks to give the stats context. A chart of the average save percentage for the previous 10-game sample on any given date shows the fluctuations, and gives a glimpse into how the goalies were faring when the season was ended.
That analysis shows that much of the reason for Jarry’s high save percentage was his play in the first half of the season, a significant portion of which was played as the backup. He was only able to maintain that form for about a month after being handed the reins. His play suffered from mid-December through to February, to the point where his effectiveness matched Murray’s and they began to play more as a tandem with alternating starts.
During that same period, Price gradually got back to a more recognizable form, peaking at the best 10-game average in this analysis at .950 in early February. That incredible rise from well below average to the top of the league — along with the arrival of Ilya Kovalchuk — rekindled Montreal’s playoff hopes.
Unfortunately, the Canadiens had neither Kovaalchuk nor that elite version of Price by the pause in mid-March. Murray and Jarry were also equal in performance, but that was because they had both descended back into below-average territory. The three goaltenders were indistinguishable from one anoth in the final month of play, all putting in plenty of sub-.900 performances to end the season playing like backup goaltenders.
Given their most recent play, neither team should be confident that their goaltender can be the difference-maker in the series. Price was the best of the three in the 2020 calendar year, with the most recent period of strong play, and any fatigue he was feeling as the most-used goalie in the league will be gone after a four-and-a-half-month rest by the time the play-ins begin in August, but at this point in his career it’s hard to predict which version the team will get in a given sequence of games.
Jarry was the better of the two goalies for Pittsburgh, but there are questions about his ability to carry a team given how he handled the starting role. With nothing to separate them in the final part of the year, Sullivan will likely lean on the championship pedigree of Murray to lead his team into the qualification round.
Neither team carries the obvious advantage into the playoffs at this position, as no goaltender was particularly steady for his club at the end of the season One benefit Pittsburgh has is that they can make a swap if Game One doesn’t go their way, which could allow them to turn things around before meeting an abrupt end. Montreal doesn’t have a proven backup of similar calibre to step in if Price struggles in the opening game or two.
It all comes down to which of Price and Murray can get to their best level right away. Despite his ups and downs, Price was the better goalie of the two this year, and therefore a slight edge goes to Montreal at the goaltending position.