The Second Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs began on Saturday. Today, we preview the matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Winnipeg Jets.
Jets vs. Canadiens playoff schedule – series livestream link
Game 1: Wed. June 2: Canadiens at Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 2: Fri. June 4: Canadiens at Jets, 7:30 p.m. ET (USA Network)
Game 3: Sun. June 6: Jets at Canadiens, 6 p.m. ET (NBCSN)
Game 4: Mon. June 7: Jets at Canadiens, 8 p.m. ET (NHL Network)
*Game 5: Wed. June 9: Canadiens at Jets TBD
*Game 6: Fri. June 11: Jets at Canadiens TBD
*Game 7: Sun. June 13: Canadiens at Jets TBD
1. Two big-name goalies at the top of their games
No doubt about it, Carey Price is red-hot for yet another playoff run. In three of Price’s last four regular seasons, he’s struggled, ending up with a .909 save percentage or lower during those down years.
But the arguments continue to mount that there really is something different about “playoff Carey Price.”
After beguiling the Maple Leafs during their seven-game series, Price now has a .932 save percentage during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Remarkably, that .932 save percentage is the lowest of his last three playoff runs; Price generated a .933 mark back in 2016-17, and a career-best .936 save percentage during last year’s playoffs.
In 77 playoff games, Price’s save percentage is a fantastic .919. It’s easy to forget that Price at least temporarily lost his starting job to Jake Allen this season after seeing him seemingly flip that switch yet again. Beat up Auston Matthews all you want, but not a lot of goalies can hold him to one goal on 35 shots on goal over seven pressure-packed games.
Yet, with all of that, Connor Hellebuyck still gives the Jets an advantage over the Canadiens — at least on paper.
[NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs 2021 Second Round schedule, TV info]
Considering how long the Jets have been on cruise control, it might be easy to lose track of how crucial Hellebuyck was in sweeping the Oilers.
Memorably, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were shut down for the first two games of that shocking sweep. People try to dig deep for reasons — or dig not so deep and just blame Edmonton’s best players — but the conclusion should be simple. It was mostly about Hellebuyck.
As great as Price was vs. the Maple Leafs, Hellebuyck generated an impeccable .950 save percentage against Edmonton. Via Hockey Reference, Hellebuyck managed a 4.6 GSAA (goals saved above average), compared to Price’s 2.6. There are different expected goals models, and Hellebuyck shines in all of them.
The #GoJetsGo won this series because of goaltending. Mike Smith wasn't awful overall by any means but Connor Hellebuyck was next-level, stopping 6.6 goals above expected in only four games. pic.twitter.com/FMB0Dj2JEp
— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) May 25, 2021
While Price put an “S” on his chest during the past few postseasons, Hellebuyck’s carried the Jets full-time. He’s been one of the best goalies in the playoffs in virtually every situation, even when his defense craters around him. Which is more often than some might think … because Hellebuyck cleans up so many of those messes.
This is the playoffs, and goalies are goalies. For all we know, Canadiens – Jets could end up being an unexpected slugfest. But the most likely situation is a goalie duel between Price and Hellebuyck.
2. Rest vs. Rust
Yes, it’s true that the Jets had to work as hard for their sweep as you’ll probably ever see. The last three games of that series went to overtime, including a Game 4 that required a third OT.
Nonetheless, the Jets last played on Monday, May 24, while the Canadiens stunned the Maple Leafs in Game 7 a week later (Mon., May 31). Much like the Golden Knights, the Habs quickly turn around to face Winnipeg in Game 1 on Wednesday.
On one hand, the Canadiens are likely feeling sharp, while the Jets will probably need to shake off some rust, especially in Game 1. Still, that’s a daunting difference in time off, and also in sheer games played. The Jets went through three fewer games, which means missing all of those collisions, puck battles, and blocked shots.
The Canadiens even need to travel, something the Jets haven’t done since May 21.
If Winnipeg can’t take advantage of that fatigue factor, they’ll kick themselves. Even if they need some extra smelling salts to get focused.
3. Quantity vs. Quality
Broadly speaking, the Jets and Canadiens can be broken down into contrasting styles.
The Canadiens tend to generate strong underlying numbers, gaining the advantage in simple shots on goal, but also controlling high-danger chances. There’s a bit of quantity-over-quality, though. In particular, they struggle to score goals — part by design (penchant for point shots), partially because of personnel (not a ton of snipers). There have been times when they don’t get saves, although “playoff Carey Price” makes that outlook rosier vs. the Jets.
Meanwhile, the Jets don’t always possess the puck or defend in a way that you’d expect from a team that’s carried significant expectations.
"We weren't a great defender of the game at the right times."
Paul Maurice speaking to Winnipeg's improvement in time to play against Edmonton.
"It really forced us to take a hard look at things we had to get better at in our game — and we did."
— Murat Ates (@WPGMurat) June 1, 2021
For example, Blake Wheeler‘s defensive impact can sometimes look jarring, but he makes it work thanks to his offensive contributions.
In the Jets vs. the Canadiens, we could see rest vs. rust and quantity vs. quality.
4. Jets had slight edge in season series vs. Canadiens
Personally, head-to-head results only mean so much during a normal season. Over 82 games, some head-to-head matchups might happen during unusual cold streaks, big road trips, or so early in a campaign that the results feel irrelevant.
During the compressed 2020-21 season, though? They’re more worthwhile to look over.
In nine games, the Jets went 6-3-0 vs. the Canadiens; due to games going beyond regulation, Montreal went 3-3-0.
In the grand scheme of things, it only means so much. But Winnipeg had the slight edge during the regular season.
5. Prediction: Jets in 6
After storming back from down 3-1, the Habs’ confidence must be soaring. Still, the sheer wear-and-tear from making that push must also leave them sore.
Expect Montreal to control the puck more often, and it’s possible that Carey Price will outplay Connor Hellebuyck. Still, the Jets’ combination of Hellebuyck, some superior finishers, and a boatload of extra rest swings the series in their favor — in my book, anyway.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.