The NHL’s Return to Play format gives the Montreal Canadiens an unexpected chance to make the 16-team playoffs if they can eliminate the favoured Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-five series during the initial play-in round.
While it goes without saying that Carey Price, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher, and Jeff Petry have to be at their very best if Montreal has any shot, there are other Habs who will need to step up in a big way if they hope to pull off the upset.
While the Penguins are wary of facing an in-form Price who could steal three games on his own in a shortened series, Sidney Crosby will have Phillip Danault to deal with virtually every time he steps on the ice. If the Canadiens’ top line of Danault, Gallagher, and Tomas Tatar, one of the most effective trios in the league over the past two seasons, can shut down Crosby and his linemates while producing offensively, Montreal will have a fighting chance.
Danault continues to establish himself as one of the top two-way centres in the NHL and should be a Selke Trophy finalist in the not too distant future. He was on his way to posting career-best numbers with 47 points in 71 games before the season was paused.
The task for Danault and his line will be made even tougher by Jake Guentzel, who is expected to return after recovering from shoulder surgery. He scored 40 goals last season and had 20 goals in 39 games this year while playing mostly on Crosby’s wing.
“We’ll be facing arguably two of the best players in the world. It’ll be a challenge. But like any athlete, I think you look forward to testing yourselves, and you look forward to seeing how you hold up in those situations. It’ll be a test for our group, for sure, especially with a lot of guys that haven’t been given that playoff experience. We’ll see how we stack up,” Gallagher said.
Considering that general manager Marc Bergevin sold multiple assets at the trade deadline, including Ilya Kovalchuk, a healthy Jonathan Drouin will be a welcome addition to the Habs’ top six. His playmaking skills were sorely missed during his lengthy injury layoff.
Drouin had 15 points in 27 games before wrist and ankle injuries put an end to his regular season. It was arguably his best stretch as a Hab. If he can rediscover that form and some chemistry with Max Domi (assuming he’s cleared to play), Drouin will be a difference-maker on the power play and at 5-on-5.
Drouin’s last playoff appearance came in 2016 when he put up 14 points in 17 games to help the Tampa Bay Lightning reach the Eastern Conference Final. His ability to produce will be crucial to take some pressure off Montreal’s top line, who will need to be dominant at both ends of the ice.
Paul Byron’s absence for all but 29 games this season left a noticeable hole in the Canadiens’ lineup. The team missed his blazing speed and versatility. Although he struggled before going down with a knee injury in November, Byron excels in every facet of the game and brings many intangibles to the table, including determination and leadership.
The Canadiens were 11-5-3 with him in the lineup and 16-21-5 without their assistant captain before he returned in February. The 31-year-old had back-to-back 20-goal seasons in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Like Drouin, Byron’s secondary scoring and his all-around game will be key to Montreal’s success.
“He works hard every single shift. He can make plays, he can block shots, he kills penalties; he literally does everything you can ask of a player,” Domi said of Byron.
Top to bottom, the Habs’ group of defensemen will have to be better than they were in the regular season to help Price keep the puck out of their net. It starts with Weber and Petry, but Ben Chiarot will also play a vital role.
He rose to the occasion during his first season in Montreal, putting up a career-high 21 points while playing primarily on the first pair alongside Weber. He also averaged almost seven minutes more ice time this year than his career average.
Chiarot is a stabilizing presence next to the captain thanks to his complete game both at even strength and on the penalty kill. The duo is tough to play against for the opposing team’s best players and they will have to shut down Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and company if the Canadiens want to advance to the 16-team playoffs.
The Canadiens are the underdog against the Penguins; they are the no. 24 seed after all. They will need a lot of things to go right to win the series, but these key players can be difference-makers. A fresh start will rejuvenate the team, and this sudden opportunity is one they will not want to waste.