An Uphill Battle vs. the Pens
May 29, 2020
By Grant McCagg
It’s been a decade since the underdog Canadiens defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals. The two eastern conference foes are slated to face off in “post-season” play for the first time since that surprising victory.
Is there another upset in the making?
It depends an awful lot on goaltending. Concerns that Carey Price may have been overplayed are long gone – the 32-year-old Price will have had more than four months of rest since COVID-19 halted NHL play when this series hopefully gets going.
If anything – the layoff may give him a slight edge. Pittsburgh’s tandem of Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray basically split the netminding duties in Pittsburgh in 2019-20, with neither one of them playing 40 games. If the playoffs get rolling in July as planned, neither will have played 40 games in the past ten months.
You don’t want to be running on fumes going into a qualification round – but you also don’t want to be too rusty, either. Price appeared in 58 games, which is arguably too many in a six-month period (October to April), but just about ideal over a ten-month period as long as he has stayed in top condition.
Perhaps the most important factor in this proposed series is the uncertainty regarding who the Penguins start in Game 1. Murray is the goalie with playoff pedigree, having been part of two Cup wins with Pittsburgh since joining the NHL. Yet, Jarry clearly outplayed him this past season, posting a .921 save percentage as opposed to Murray’s rather underwhelming mark of .898.
It conjures up memories of Washington’s decision two Aprils ago to start the hot goalie with little playoff experience in Philipp Grubauer over the proven veteran in Braden Holtby. It almost cost them the series after going down 2-0 at home, but that was in a best-of-seven series. Pittsburgh can’t afford to make the wrong goalie choice and go down 2-0 in what likely will be a best-of-5 affair.
Do they choose the goalie who deserves the start in Jarry, or the one who has taken them to the promise land before in Murray? It will not be an easy decision, and they won’t have any exhibition games beforehand to try to better determine which one is playing better. Montreal has no such dilemma – it will be Price getting the nod.
Pittsburgh’s past history with similar quandaries worked out in their favour, mind you. The Penguins won Cups in 2016 and 2017 with Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury both seeing action. Ideally, though, in a five-game matchup, you want a goalie that is hot in Game 1 and remains so throughout the series. There is not a lot of room for experimentation in a shortened series.
Montreal has not been overly successful in playoff appearances since that conference final run in 2009, winning two series and losing five. A major reason for that is that Price has, for the most part, been outplayed by the opposing goaltender in those series, certainly in the five matchups Montreal lost. While Price has shown he can win big games at the international level and in his AHL Calder Cup run in 2007 with Hamilton, it has, for the most part, been a different story with Montreal. This is an opportunity for the goalie who has been touted as the best in the NHL for much of the past decade to earn that distinction.
Another thing to take into account regarding skaters is the lengthy layoff. One would surmise that the long layoff best benefits younger players, and in particular, ones who are just starting their NHL careers.
Pittsburgh has the second oldest roster in the NHL, and their three main skaters – Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – are all 32 or older. Malkin may well have turned 34 before this series ever gets underway.
Three of Pittsburgh top six forwards in Malik, Crosby and Hornqvist are all older than 31. They are still great players to be sure, but the one thing they are not doing is getting better as players. What you see is what you’ll get…and it is most assuredly formidable, albeit predictable.
Montreal has no 30-year-old forwards in its top six, and there is a talented young group of players who, if they were training properly the past four months, have only gotten bigger and stronger. Do we not suppose that Ryan Poehling, for example, isn’t at least a little stronger than when he last played for the Canadiens? What about Nick Suzuki, Cale Fleury, Jake Evans, Josh Brook and Noah Juulsen, who has been able to train at maximum capacity since the NHL shut down for the first time in two years?
Most importantly; what about Alexander Romanov? The 20-year-old defender is in limbo at this precise moment. The memo sent out by NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly seemed to signal to the hockey world that Romanov would not be eligible to play. Yet in a press conference this week, Montreal GM Marc Bergevin stated that he wasn’t sure one way or the other if Romanov would be allowed to play, and discussions are ongoing between the NHL and the player’s association regarding his eligibility.
When/if they do get things rolling with a second training camp in July, there are going to be some dogfights for roster spots on the Canadiens. Everyone except Kotkaniemi will be healthy, and all of the players mentioned above should only be bigger, stronger, and more ready to bring that youthful energy and talent to the Canadiens’ practices.
Romanov has shown at the past two World Juniors that he is the real deal. Several amateur scouts that attended the last event agreed with me that he is ready to play in the NHL; he was ready in January. Just because he wasn’t a regular on his club team in Russia didn’t mean he wasn’t deserving; his head coach realized that Romanov was gone at the end of this season, and gave him little playing time because of that.
I watched a number of CSKA games early in the season, and in most games Romanov was clearly one of the three best defenders on that club, yet he rarely saw more than eight minutes of ice time. Romanov has the talent to impact a playoff series just as Cale Makar did last spring when he joined the Colorado Avalanche fresh out of college. He may not be as dynamic offensively or skate quite as well, but defensively he is ready to make his mark in the NHL.
Do not take this as an assertion that Montreal is likely to win a Cup, or even beat Pittsburgh. I am only bringing this up as an example of what a roster teeming with young players, champing at the bit to get playing time, can bring to a team that is considered to be middle-of-the-pack (at best) talent-wise after finishing 24th in the regular-season standings.
Pittsburgh does not have that same luxury. GM Jimmy Rutherford has dealt a lot of youth and draft picks in recent years to try to continue winning now with the window of opportunity closing as his superstars age. There is nowhere close to the same level of young talent in the Penguins organization as Montreal’s at this time.
The 1993 Cup-winning Canadiens were not the most skilled team in the NHL. What they did have, though, was young depth that brought a ton of energy during that playoff run. A dozen players on that team who were under the age of 25 played at least nine games, and the club’s top two playoff scorers, Vinny Damphousse and Kirk Muller, were 25 and 26, respectively.
It is fair to say that Gilbert Dionne, Paul Dipietro and John Leclair all overachieved during that magical playoffs. Leclair obviously was the most talented, and that shone through when he moved to Philly to play on a line with Lindros, but at the time, no one was expecting two back-to-back overtime game-winning goals in the finals from him, perhaps in part because no one expected the Canadiens to win more than a handful of playoff games, with the mighty Penguins and Mario the heavy favourites in the east, having won the previous two Cups.
The main stumbling block in this optimistic scenario could well be coach Claude Julien. He and Jacques Demers are/were almost polar opposites when it comes to their philosophies concerning veterans and young players. If a veteran failed to contribute in a playoff game in 1993, Demers pulled him out of the lineup and inserted a raw rookie without hesitation. It kept everyone on his toes, and there was no complacency among the established players. Denis Savard discovered that soon enough.
Julien, on the other hand, is renowned for loving his veteran pluggers, perferring to play older, slower players instead of promising newcomers, because of their experience.
There is also the absence of Jesperi Kotkaniemi due to his ruptured spleen. He may have been a key to helping the Habs get by the Penguins if he was healthy enough to play – no player on the Canadiens would have benefited more from this four-month layoff if he had been able to train full bore and gain the lower-body strength that is still missing from his immature body.
We saw the improvement he made in one training camp two autumns ago, who’s to say KK wouldn’t have been ready to take his game up to the next level if he was playing against Pittsburgh?
The other negative for the Canadiens is that such a series wouldn’t include games in Montreal. It is undeniable that the fervent home crowd played a factor in Montreal defeating the Cup champs back in 2010. Montreal won two of the three games played in the Bell Centre that series, and that was the difference in the 4-3 series win. Games played at a neutral site with no fans won’t help the Canadiens in that regard. On the other side of the coin; it also won’t benefit the team with “home-ice advantage”, either, so perhaps those two factors even things out when it comes to crowd advantage.
In 2010, the Canadiens, a team that was six games over .500, defeated two teams in Washington and Pittsburgh who were a combined 48 wins over .500.
Montreal’s task this time around is to best a team that was 17 games over .500 in this shortened season, so it’s not like it will be facing a better team than the two it defeated in 2010.
It should also be noted that, in their last 11 games before the season ended, the Penguins went 3-8 and were -14 in goals for and against….hardly a team that was firing on all cylinders. Montreal’s record wasn’t much better, but this Penguins team isn’t the 1996-97 Chicago Bulls. Let us not forget that a far better Tampa team lost in four straight games last season; there are no guarantees that the Penguins couldn’t be upset in an even shorter series.
Boy; would that ever get out the whiners, who are already griping about the 24-place team even getting the opportunity to qualify, and for that reason alone, we can only hope it indeed happens. That may indeed be the case, if the Price is right.
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