Hockey is back on tap and in a big way, which means there’s a lot to cover in a relatively short period of time. It’s time to get on with the show and preview the Stanley Cup Playoffs Qualifying Round.
Up next, the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Penguins enter as heavy favourites. They have the firepower, they have the top forwards, they have the veteran leadership, they have the grit, they have the desire to hoist another Stanley Cup before this bizarre season comes to an end. Stopping Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin isn’t a task I’d wish on anyone.
The Habs, on the other hand, are the underdogs. They enter the post-season dead last among all other Qualifying Round teams. When the regular season ended mid-March, Montreal was well on the outside looking in at the playoffs. But times have changed and here we are, ready to give the Canadiens a second chance.
That second chance means a lot to forward Nick Suzuki, who will no doubt win the tough assignment of containing Crosby and Malkin. Couple that with Montreal’s tendency to produce a high volume of shots and we could be looking at an interesting series. The Habs like to throw the puck at the net from just about anywhere, as shot metrics reveal, but that hasn’t led to more offensive results.
Think of it this way: Montreal took 10 more shots per hour than the Penguins this season, but Pittsburgh scored more goals. That means Pens goalie Matt Murray (or Tristan Jarry) will have his hands full, especially if the Canadiens can start turning volume into results. If the Habs get a few bounces or start working some magic with deflections, Pittsburgh could find themselves surprised.
But really, quality matters more. And the Penguins have the tenacity and skill to get into high-danger areas and pressure the opposition. Enter Carey Price, who will have to be every bit as good as he can be going against the masterful Pittsburgh squad. Crosby and Malkin are obviously wizards with the puck, while stalwarts like Jake Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist don’t mind getting in the dirty areas.
That combination of skill and grit makes the Penguins a dangerous team for Montreal because, frankly, they have so few weapons against them. Suzuki will pressure on the forecheck, but the Habs’ weaknesses in front of their own net are well-documented. If the Penguins get on the power play and crowd out Price, look out.
This is Pittsburgh’s series to lose. It’s not a stretch to predict a Penguins win, but Montreal does stand a chance if they can contain the stars, clean up shop in front of Carey Price, and knock in a few surprises.