The NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers kick off the Return to Play plan on August 1. This week, PHT will be previewing each series with a look at storylines and end with our predictions for the eight matchups.
(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens — TV schedule, start times, channels
Saturday, Aug. 1: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET – NBC
Monday, Aug. 3: Canadiens vs. Penguins, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens*
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*
Canadiens – Penguins preview: Top storylines for Stanley Cup Qualifiers series
When the NHL was finalizing the Return to Play plans and we knew this would likely be a Qualifying Round matchup, the notion of the Penguins being scared of Carey Price in a short series bubbled up. Of course, any goaltender can get hot and steal a series, especially one that is best-of-five. But the Canadiens netminder hasn’t been his old self for a few seasons now. Price’s even strength save percentage has dipped from the .930s he posted between 2013-14 and 2016-17 to .911, .920, and .916 in each of the last three seasons, per Evolving Hockey.
The Penguins aren’t slacking in terms of experience or offensive skill, so the idea that a goaltender would inspire fear? Seems silly. But every game means something now, so maybe someone threw this out there thinking a little gamesmanship wouldn’t hurt? Either way, how Price plays will be the biggest factor in determining whether the Canadiens pull off the upset or cross their fingers and hope they land Alexis Lafreniere in Phase 2 of the draft lottery.
Danault’s big task
Philip Danault is a player who should get more Selke Trophy love, and his two-way game has prepared him for shutting down Pittsburgh’s weapons. One shift he might be faced with keeping Sidney Crosby in check; the next his job will be to slow Evgeni Malkin. He’ll have his hands full, and with the Penguins being the “home” team for Games 1 and 2 and getting last change, Claude Julien won’t be able to get his preferred matchup right away.
Pittsburgh’s goalie decision
How coy is Mike Sullivan being about who will be the Penguins’ Game 1 starter? He wouldn’t even divulge if both Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray would play in their lone exhibition game against the Flyers. Who would start has long been a question since the Return to Play plan was announced. Sullivan has been using camp to influence his decision, but it’s unknown if he’ll announce his No. 1 before the series begins.
Murray’s ESSV% dropped from .930 in 50 appearances last season to .901 this season. In his first full NHL season, Jarry posted a .929 at 5-on-5 and grabbed the starter’s role from Murray. There’s a slight edge to Murray (.905 vs. .901) over Jarry in that stat after January 1 when each played 15 times. But the pause has evened the playing field for many goalie battles across the NHL. A short series leaves for little room for error, and Sullivan is hoping the 1a and 1b options at his disposal will turn out to be an edge.
Who’s out? Who might return?
Canadiens: After taking a few days to speak with medical officials, Max Domi, a Type 1 diabetic, has decided to play. He’s since been centering a line with Dale Weise and Jordan Weal. Jesper Kotkaniemi is fully healed after suffering a spleen injury in March. Russian defenseman Alexander Romanov will be able to practice with the Habs during Phase 4, but will be unable to play after signing a three-year contract earlier this month.
Penguins: Sidney Crosby missed practice time in the last week but was on the ice with teammates Monday. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the pause has been Jake Guentzel, who used the time heal up from a shoulder injury suffered in December. The Penguins will be without Nick Bjugstad (spine), Domink Simon (labrum), and Zach Trotman (undisclosed) for the entire Return to Play.
Canadiens’ PK vs. Penguins’ PP
The Penguins power play does a good job of getting to the net to create scoring opportunities. That’s shown in their 136 high-danger scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick. The Habs’ penalty kill? They were among the leaders in high-danger scoring chances allowed and had a 78.7% success rate through 71 games. Special teams are always so important in the postseason, this unique situation will only enhance that.
Pittsburgh’s power play finished middle of the road (19.9%). They had the Grade A chances, as evidenced by their number of high-danger chances, they just couldn’t capitalize. That was a focus during training camp and betting against that extra man unit — one that has finished above 23% in each of the last three seasons — would probably not end well. Montreal was good at keeping many extra man shots to the outside in the offensive zone, but there were enough holes to allow a good amount from down low. Price will be tested and Julien will need to be ready to make adjustments to what Mark Recchi, who handles the Penguins’ power play, throws at them.