It’s been over 10 weeks since the NHL indefinitely postponed the 2019-20 season. Fans were finally given some hope last week regarding the league’s return. While nothing is set in stone, it appears that a 24-team, bracket-style playoff will determine this season’s Stanley Cup champion. Under the proposed format, the Pittsburgh Penguins would be the Eastern Conference’s 5th seed, the highest seed among teams playing in the first round, and will host the Montreal Canadiens.
It’s hard to judge how teams will react to this unprecedented postseason. Naturally, there will be some rust to shake off, but in general, teams should be fairly healthy and rested up. In a matchup against the playoff team with the fewest points in the standings, how can the Penguins move on to the second round?
Penguins – Canadiens Matchup Overview
The Penguins and Canadiens were about as even as it gets during the regular season; in three contests, each team enjoyed a 4-1 victory while the Penguins took the second decision with an overtime win. It’s hard to gauge this matchup based on those contests though; Sidney Crosby missed two games (including the Penguins’ lone loss), Shea Weber missed one contest, and Brian Dumoulin was absent for all three.
Of course, the regular season standings show the Penguins have a massive advantage. Pittsburgh earned 86 points and a plus-28 goal differential in 69 games compared to Montreal’s 71 points and minus-9 goal differential in 71 contests. The Penguins will also extend their playoff streak to 14 seasons (longest active in the NHL) while the Canadiens are lucky to be in a postseason berth for just the second time in the last five years.
These teams couldn’t be more different when it comes to their netminders. The Canadiens will start former Hart Trophy-winner Carey Price for as long as they remain in the postseason. The 32-year-old had a shaky season (2.79 goals-against average (GAA) and .909 save percentage (SV%)) but he led all goaltenders with 58 appearances. In 33 career games against the Penguins, Price carries a .907 SV% and 2.95 GAA alongside a 13-14-5 record.
At the other end of the ice, it’s uncertain which goalie will get the starting nod from head coach Mike Sullivan. Matt Murray entered the 2019-20 season as the Penguins’ incumbent starter but lost the bulk of playing time to 25-year-old Tristan Jarry. Despite riding a four-game losing streak at the end of the regular season, where he allowed 18 goals on 116 shots (.845 SV%), Jarry still had significantly better numbers than Murray throughout the season, including three shutouts.
Teams very rarely use a tandem situation come playoff time, and with the opening round of this postseason set to be a five-game series, Sullivan doesn’t have much wiggle room in net. Jarry should be the starter, but will Murray earn the nod due to his 47 career postseason starts?
Matchup to Watch: Battle of the Captains
It may sound obvious, but this first-round series could come down to the captains. The matchup between superstar center Crosby and shutdown defenseman Weber will draw plenty of eyes and likely shift momentum throughout the series.
The big-bodied blueliner, along with defensive partner Ben Chiarot, will be tasked with slowing down the Penguins’ lethal top-six, led by Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel. At the other end, Weber will create problems with his booming slapshot and keen passing abilities; he’s racked up 15 goals and 36 points in 65 games this season.
Despite missing 28 games after core muscle surgery, Crosby was as elite as ever this season. In his first 13 games following his absence, the 32-year-old totaled seven goals and 23 points, including a pair of 4-point outings. He’s a nightmare for opponents on the ice whether he has the puck on his stick or not.
Due to injuries to both players, Weber and Crosby didn’t face each other in any of the three contests this season; Crosby missed the first two while Weber missed the third and final matchup. What better time for these two All-Stars to meet for the first time this season than in a five-game playoff series?
X-Factors: Jake Guentzel and Brendan Gallagher
In the few months before the NHL paused the season, both Jake Guentzel and Brendan Gallagher dealt with injuries. Guentzel missed 30 games after undergoing shoulder surgery while Gallagher dealt with a concussion and lower-body injury, causing him to sit out 12 of Montreal’s last 31 contests. Fortunately, both wingers look to be ready to go once the playoffs begin.
Before his injury, Guentzel was on pace for a fantastic 40-goal, 90-point season. He thrived alongside both Crosby and Malkin and it will be interesting to see which center he sticks with when he’s back in the lineup. However Sullivan sets the lineup, the Penguins’ top-six will be one of the best in the league when Guentzel returns.
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Meanwhile, Gallagher was on pace for his third consecutive 30-goal season for the Habs. He’s one of the most consistent offensive threats on the team over that timeframe and in the 12 games he missed this season, Montreal went 4-7-1. If he’s able to stay on the ice and get some momentum rolling, the 28-year-old winger could start lighting up the scoreboard as he did with a two-point outing against the Penguins on Dec. 10.
On paper, the Penguins should cruise through the five-game opening series against the Canadiens. This matchup has the biggest point disparity (15 points) of any first-round matchup in the proposed postseason bracket. However, if Price gets in a groove or the Penguins’ uncertain goaltending situation fizzles, this series could come down to the wire.