There is a lot that needs to go right for the Montreal Canadiens if they want to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in their play-in series beginning Aug. 1.
It is one of the most-used clichés in sports, but to succeed they will need contributions from the whole team, from the players on the ice to the coaches behind the bench. The good news is that for the first time all season, they have a healthy lineup and the depth needed to pull off the upset.
It Can’t Just Be the Carey Price Show
It’s well-known that the Penguins are wary of Carey Price, especially in a shortened five-game series, and rightfully so. He can steal games for his team on any given night, but they will need more than their star goaltender to succeed against Pittsburgh. Just ask Price himself.
“I can sway the odds with outstanding play, but at the end of the day, we’ll all need to play over our heads to win. I just go out there and play my game, try not to do too much. We’ll win and lose as a team, and it’s always been like that.”Carey Price
In 33 games against the Penguins in his career, Price is 13-14-5 with a 2.95 goals-against average (GAA) and a .907 save percentage (SV%). He was 1-1-1 with a 2.32 GAA and .929 SV% in three starts against them this season.
While Price instilled confidence during training camp with strong practices and some vintage saves, he’s going to need his teammates in front of him to help stop Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company. Montreal’s group of defensemen will need to let Price see the puck and limit Pittsburgh’s second-chance opportunities. Their forwards need to score some timely goals and stay aggressive on the forecheck to keep the play out of the Habs’ defensive zone.
Balanced Lines and Defense Pairings
Even though general manager Marc Bergevin traded Ilya Kovalchuk, Marco Scandella and Nate Thompson at the deadline, the Canadiens will have the deepest and most balanced lineup they have had all season in the playoffs.
From top to bottom, every player can and must contribute at both ends of the ice. Head coach Claude Julien will have multiple options at his disposal to assemble his lines and defense pairings to put together a balanced lineup. Speaking of the team’s current depth, Julien had Max Domi, who scored 72 points last season, centering the fourth line through the final week of training camp. His wingers are Jordan Weal and Dale Weise, who has scored some big playoff goals for the Canadiens in the past. While it’s unlikely Domi will be the fourth-line center come Game 1 against the Penguins, all four lines are sure to pack an offensive punch.
Julien might have tough lineup decisions to make, but he should ultimately favor youth over experience. Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a great camp and deserves to be in the top 12 forwards regardless of where Domi slots. On defense, youngsters Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen also warrant to see some game action, perhaps in place of Xavier Ouellet despite his 172 games of NHL experience.
“I’m going to make my lines not to defend against the Penguins, but to beat the Penguins. It depends on your approach — are you going into a series trying to defend, or are you trying to win? If you’re trying to win, you have to be on your toes, and you have to attack.”Claude Julien
Special teams will also be crucial for the Canadiens. Selke Trophy contender Phillip Danault and captain Shea Weber will lead the penalty kill, but they won’t be able to stop Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang on their own. They’ll need players like Ben Chiarot and Artturi Lehkonen to step up as well.
On the power play, Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Nick Suzuki will have to create for their teammates and if a player like Joel Armia can bring his scoring touch from the regular season where he scored a career-high 16 goals in just 58 games, the Canadiens will be that much harder to defend.
The Habs are Embracing Their Underdog Status
As the lowest-ranked team in the NHL’s Return to Play Plan, Habs’ players are aware they aren’t being given much of a chance against the Penguins and that suits them just fine.
“The outside opinion about our group doesn’t matter one bit. What’s important to us is how we feel in our locker room. And as long as our guys have confidence and we believe that we can achieve this, it’s possible,” Brendan Gallagher said.
Embracing their underdog status will serve the Canadiens well. They have nothing to lose and can play like it. A team that has been given a second chance is a dangerous opponent for anyone. The Habs can also take advantage of the unpredictability of this unconventional playoff setup brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Toronto bubble will level the playing field, and anything can happen in a shortened five-game series. The margin for error is small regardless of a team’s place in the standings.
Championship runs are often defined by unlikely heroes who score timely goals or make big defensive plays at the most opportune times. The Canadiens have many candidates who can step up and fill that role.
Montreal’s rate of success might start with Price, Weber, and their highly effective top line of Danault, Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, but it certainly doesn’t end with them. A full team effort will be the key to a long playoff run, starting with a victory over the Penguins.