The Montréal Canadiens vs Pittsburgh Penguins series is an interesting one to analyze. Neither team has a very good shot to make a deep cup run, but there are reasons for optimism for both clubs. Pittsburgh still has their future hall-of-famer Sidney Crosby, but worries about his health put an asterisk on that point. Apart from a few flashes, Montréal has been consistently mediocre during the past decade, with their potential stars fading out or being sent away, such as P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty, and Carey Price.
Montréal Canadiens Strengths:
With Jonathan Drouin set to return, the Habs have another fading star situation on their hands. GM Marc Bergevin had traded away defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for the forward after his promising performance during the 2015-16 playoffs. Drouin has failed to live up to this expectation, however, putting up 13 goals and 46 points in 77 games during his first season wearing a Habs sweater. The following season, he had a minor improvement with 18 goals and 53 points in 81 games. This past season, he suffered from an ankle injury that limited him to 27 games. He only put up seven goals and 15 points before he fell to the injury that kept him out for the remainder of the regular season. Rumors had surfaced throughout the Canadiens’ 2019-2020 season that Bergevin was shopping the 2013 draft pick. This playoff qualifier season could be the deciding factor for if he stays or goes. Drouin will recognize this and could cause him to show his former playoff self for Montréal’s benefit.
Regardless of the Canadiens’ poor offensive showing, the blue line is not a liability. They had a -9 score differential, and for a team that has huge issues putting up goals, this is still impressive. Shea Weber is one of the best two-way defensemen in the league, and his slapshot is feared by many. Victor Mete is extremely underrated and doubted by many, but his numbers prove why he should have more recognition. Jeff Petry is only ranked two spots below his all-star teammate, Shea Weber, on the NHL’s fantasy rankings. The depth Montréal have on the blue line is something to be optimistic about for all Habs fans.
Not all hope is necessarily lost for the Habs’ offense, either. They have many up-and-coming players such as Nick Suzuki who will lead the team into this next decade. Brendan Gallagher, TikTok star and professional hockey player, is another one of Montréal’s underrated players who will seek to make a mark on these qualifiers. These young studs will look to prove why they should be in Claude Julien’s future, with future star Alexander Romanov joining the ranks next year.
Another reason for optimism is the Canadiens’ advanced statistics. Despite the scoring issues, their Expected Goals For/60 Minutes (xGF/60) is 2.85, which ranks third in the NHL. This means that with proper technique and improvement in passion, the Canadiens have made far more opportunities for themselves. The ball, or puck for that matter, lies in their court to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve created.
Montréal Canadiens Weaknesses:
This is where things get ugly for the storied hockey club. As previously mentioned, the Canadiens have been consistently mediocre, with stars
coming and going through the years. They haven’t won a playoff series since the 2014-15 season, and have only been a first-round exit once since then. With the Habs placing in 24th overall this year, having barely made the qualifiers, they would have been a long-shot to make the playoffs in a COVID-free world.
Like a night sky, there are generally some bright stars shimmering in all their glory. The majority of the sky is still dark, however. The Habs scored 212 goals this past year, highlighting the offensive holes on the team. Another important metric, xGF/60 as previously mentioned, is third in the NHL. They rank 18th in goals scored, however. The Canadiens could continue with their skill for creating opportunities, and improve on their shots, or more likely they will fail to improve in that category.
Montréal also faces a catch 22 in terms of age. Their roster is full of older players and young players. Very few Canadiens are actually in the primes of their careers. This means with the old age of many players, although experienced, they don’t provide the skill needed for a real Stanley Cup run. The other main section of their team is very young players. Guys like Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki are extremely talented with tons of potential, but simply do not have much playoff experience, if any.
Pittsburgh Penguins Strengths:
Sidney Crosby. Very little reasoning is needed to understand why he is an obvious game-changer. The three-time Stanley Cup champion is
arguably one of the best players the sport of hockey has ever seen. Crosby is the modern-day Wayne Gretzky, and most people who do not follow hockey will still recognize the game. Sidney Crosby is an obvious future hall-of-famer, and the “Crosby Effect” could very likely be the deciding factor for how far Pittsburgh go.
Along with Sidney Crosby, most of the team are qualified veterans who have helped bring the cup to Pittsburgh multiple times. Players like Evgeni Malkin and Eric Letang have proven that their age is a positive rather than a burden.
John Marino is a young stud who has the chance to bring the Penguins into the ’20s. With the Pittsburgh mainstays getting older, management is looking towards the future. John Marino wants to prove he is the future. He signed a contract with Pittsburgh immediately after being traded from Edmonton, making a jump from college hockey to the pros. He impressed in his first season, with 26 points in 56 games, with a +/- of +17. Whilst these are not outstanding numbers, he has shown glimpses of what he could turn into if given the right tools.
Pittsburgh Penguins Weaknesses:
Sidney Crosby. He is the face of the Penguins franchise. Unfortunately, that face is injured. During phase 3 of the NHL restart, he was taken off the practice ice for undisclosed medical reasons, as is a policy with the new COVID-era rules in the league. Time is running out for his
recovery, and if he fails to return to form that will significantly diminish the Penguins’ chances of making a playoff run.
Pittsburgh wasn’t anything to write home about this season, either. Whilst they were in a playoff spot for most of the regular season, they have shown some real signs of decline this past year. Many experts doubt they have it in them to make another long run, and most agree that the window for another cup is very near closed. Their stars are not getting any younger, and apart from John Marino, their core follows that rule.
Montréal Canadiens vs Pittsburgh Penguins matchups this past season have come up fairly evenly, with each team taking a regulation win and loss, with Pittsburgh taking an overtime win. Montréal has only won 19 games in regulation, so they are no stranger to overtime. Montréal will look to continue their defensive dominance, and not allow Pittsburgh to win in regulation. The Penguins have to adapt to this style of play.
At times, Canadiens goaltender Carey Price is the best goalie in hockey. Other times, he looks like he belongs in the AHL. The inconsistency has burdened this Canadiens team for the past five years. The deciding factor for the Habs is which Carey Price shows up. If he returns to his 2014-15 self, they have a decent shot of advancing out of the qualifying round. If not, this Canadiens team has no chance of winning.
Pittsburgh has a fairly good goaltending tandem with Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Both want to be the goalies of the future for the Penguins, and regardless of who ends up being the No. 1, goaltending should not be an issue for Pittsburgh.
X-Factors for Montréal Canadiens vs Pittsburgh Penguins Series:
- The forwards must step up.
- Carey Price has to show why he is worth $84 million.
- Shea Weber must renew the fear the hockey world has of his two-way abilities.
- The veterans have to play like they are 28.
- Matt Murray and/or Tristan Jarry must continue the competition into the qualifying round.
- The entire team has to believe they are capable of winning another cup.
Montréal Canadiens vs Pittsburgh Penguins Prediction:
Pittsburgh will win in 3 games, with Montréal taking 2. The Canadiens will enter the secondary draft lottery for a chance at Alexis Lafrenière.
All statistics are from hockey-reference.com unless otherwise stated.