Looking at your phone or calendar or computer today, it is August. And there’s hockey. 2020 has been very unpredictable, but in all the mayhem the NHL returns in a bubble. We’ve known since mid-May the league was hoping for this format of a 24-team playoff and the plan was confirmed by the players on May 22nd, some 10+ weeks ago. And now, at long last, it’s here. So here we go.
Who: Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 71 points, 12th place Eastern Conference) vs. Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 86 points, 5th place in the Eastern Conference)…The Pens are the “home” team for Games 1 and 2 and have last change for lines between whistles.
When: 8:00 p.m. eastern
How to Watch: Tonight is a national game in prime time across the US and A on NBC (Channel 11 locally in Pittsburgh). CBC, SN and TVAs in Canada
Opponent Track: The Habs lost their exhibition game by the score of 4-2 to Toronto on Tuesday, the same day as the Pens played Philadelphia. Montreal gave up two shorthanded goals in the game. Tomas Tatar and Paul Byron scored the goals for the Habs. Carey Price stopped 19 of 23 shots, going the distance and playing all 60 minutes of the game.
Pens path ahead: This five game series kicks off in typical every-other-day fashion for a bit. Game 2 will be on Monday night at 8:00PM. Game 3 is on Wednesday, also at 8:00PM. It pays to be in a high-profile game and get the prize slot for television. Game 4, if necessary, is scheduled for Friday (which I’m contractually obligated to mention that Friday is 8/7), time to be decided. And then it would be a quick turnaround if a Game 5 is needed to next Saturday a week from today, time also TBD but almost surely another primetime game.
Season Series: Pittsburgh went 2-1-0 vs Montreal. However it also was a 1-1-1 series record from the Montreal perspective being as the second game of the year was a 3-2 Pens’ overtime win on January 4th courtesy of a Brandon Tanev goal. The Canadiens won the first matchup 4-1 back on December 10th and Pittsburgh took the final matchup on February 14th by a score of 4-1.
Recent History: The Pens have done well in recent matchups against MTL, going 8-2-1 in the last 11 meetings between the teams. Will that mean anything in a summer series after a long layoff? Probably not. But it does feel a little good knowing it’s not like Price and coach Claude Julien have some magical formula like some other bad teams (NJD!!!) and usually have Pittsburgh’s number.
SBN Team Counterpart: Our friends at Habs Eyes on the Prize have you covered for all the Montreal talk you could ever want.
Tale of the tape
—Both teams were pretty stable in the regular season on offense and defense results. The Canadiens ranked 19th both in goals for per game and goals against per game. The Pens were 10th in GF and 11th in GA. This feels about right, the Pens battled major injuries and performed like about the 10th best team in the NHL this season. The Habs were about the 20th best team. The Penguins are now healthier. Montreal also sold off some parts at the trade deadline, like Ilya Kovalchuk, since they weren’t expecting any sort of playoff run. On paper Pittsburgh is a much stronger team. But five-game series aren’t played on paper.
—As often discussed, Montreal’s a puck possession darling by shooting the puck frequently. Often times though it is not from danger areas, and there isn’t the talent or ability to get follow-up chances. Pittsburgh will likely have to deal with a lot more quantity than quality.
—The most glaring difference between the two teams might be the last stat in shooting percentage. Pittsburgh, even with Jake Guentzel, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining to miss 72 total man-games this season, the Pens still remained one of the most lethal shooting teams in the NHL, converting and sniping opportunities. Montreal is at the other end of the spectrum, not showcasing a lot of talent in their volume of shots.
Ben Chariot / Shea Weber
—Down the middle will be interesting, MTL has insulated 20-year old forward Kotkaniemi with two of their better defensive wingers on the team. Domi, the team’s third leading point scorer in the regular season, could be in a bit of an “x-factor” type of role that Montreal tries to isolate on the Pens’ bottom six and lower-pair defensemen to see if his speed and skill can punch trough.
And now for the Pens..