The NHL’s play-in round is a little over a week away and the Pittsburgh Penguins will play the Montreal Canadiens in a best-of-five series. Although the Penguins have been in the league since 1967 and the Canadiens are an original six team, this will be just the third time the two teams will face each other in the postseason.
The Penguins are still looking to beat the Canadiens in the postseason, as they’ve lost both playoff series to the original six team. The first time the teams faced off was in the 1997-98 postseason and the 2009-10 playoff series was the second.
1998 Playoff Series
The 1997-98 season was the first for the Penguins after Mario Lemieux announced his retirement. With the former captain retired, Jaromir Jagr led the way for the Penguins that season with 102 points in 77 games. The club finished first in the Northeast Division with a record of 40-24-18, earning the second seed. The Canadiens, on the other hand, were led by former Penguin, Mark Recchi, who had 32 goals and 74 points in 82 games. Montreal struggled throughout the season, finishing with a 37-32-13 record, good for the seventh seed.
The series went back and forth for the first four games with each team winning two games. Heading into the series, the Penguins held the home-ice advantage, but lost Game 1 after an overtime goal by Benoit Brunet. They evened the series in Game 2, winning 4-1 thanks to a three-point night from Jagr and Stu Barnes. In Game 3, the Canadiens re-took their lead at home with a two-goal game from Shayne Corson. Jagr stepped up once again for the Penguins in Game 4, with two goals and one assist in a 6-3 final.
The Canadiens stole the series in Games 5 and 6. In Game 5, Recchi had a three-point (2 goals, 1 assist) game of his own as he led his team to a 5-2 victory. Goaltender Andy Moog shutout the Penguins in Game 6, as the Canadiens ended the series with a 3-0 win, to move on to the Eastern Conference Semifinal. Recchi finished the series with three goals and eight points, while Jagr finished with four goals and nine points, both leading their respective teams. The Buffalo Sabres swept the Canadiens in the following round, ending their playoff success.
2010 Playoff Series
Twelve seasons after their last matchup, the two teams faced off again in the Eastern Conference Semifinal. The Penguins had just won the Stanley Cup the previous season and had a record of 47-28-7 and the Canadiens had a record of 39-33-10. The Penguins didn’t win their division and were the fourth seed. They beat the Ottawa Senators in the Conference Quarterfinal and the Canadiens as the eighth seed upset the Washington Capitals in seven games.
Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was the story in the first round as he stole the starting job from a 22-year-old Carey Price after splitting starts throughout the season. Halak had stopped 217 of the 231 shots he faced against the Capitals posting a .939 save percentage (SV%). Sidney Crosby led the way for the Penguins through the first round with 5 goals and 14 points, while Mike Cammalleri did the same for the Canadiens with 5 goals and 10 points.
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The series started similar to the 1998 one with both teams splitting wins in the first four games. Thanks to a 32-save performance from Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins won Game 5 and took a 3-2 series lead. With the series on the line in Game 6, Canadians forward Maxim Lapierre scored the game-winning goal in the third period of a 4-3 win to send the series to Game 7. Halak’s 37 saves and Brian Gionta’s two-goal performance led the Canadiens to a 5-2 Game 7 win. Cammalleri continued to produce, scoring seven goals throughout the series. Crosby and Malkin struggled for their standards. The pair combined for eight points in seven games.
The Canadians faced off against another underdog team in the Philadelphia Flyers who were the seventh seed. They lost in five games as the Flyers moved on to the Stanley Cup Final.
All-Time Regular Season Matchup
The Penguins hold a 70-114-23-9 regular-season record against the Canadiens. The club did not have much regular-season success against their play-in round opponent until this past decade. Since the league’s expansion to Pittsburgh in 1967, the Habs have had 10 Stanley Cup-winning teams, the last Cup coming in 1992-93. Most of the losses the club had against the original six team came in the earlier decades.
Since the 2010 playoff loss to the Canadiens, the Penguins have nearly dominated the regular season matchup over the past decade, with a 20-12-0 record against them. With Crosby and Malkin leading the way, the team was successful during the 2010s. They won two Cups back to back in 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The club has made the playoffs every season since 2006-07. The Canadiens in the past decade have ranged from being a lottery team to making the Eastern Conference Final in 2013-14.
2019-20 Season Series
The two teams have faced off three times before the stoppage this season. Crosby was out for the first two games as he was recovering from surgery on a core injury, but the Penguins were able to break even.
Dec. 10, 2019, MTL 4 – PIT 1: The Canadiens won the first game as Price stopped 33 of the 34 shots he faced, posting a .971 SV%. Jake Guentzel was the lone scorer for the Penguins, giving the team a 1-0 lead in the first period. The Canadiens answered back, scoring three goals in the second period. Brendan Gallagher scored an empty-net goal in the third period to seal the deal for the Canadiens. Joel Armia led the way with two points (1 goal, 1 assist) for his club. Tristan Jarry started the game for the Penguins, allowing three goals on 25 shots.
Jan. 4, 2020, PIT 3 – MTL 2: The second game between the two clubs was closer than the other two. Matt Murray started over Jarry and stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced, posting a .929 SV%. Arthuri Lekohnen scored his eighth and ninth goals of the season, while Zach Aston-Reese and Bryan Rust scored for the Penguins. The Penguins won in overtime thanks to a Brendan Tanev overtime game-winner.
Feb. 14, 2020, MTL 1 – PIT 4: In the third matchup between the two teams, the Penguins looked a little different. Crosby had recovered and the team traded for forward Jason Zucker. The two combined for five points, Zucker scored twice, while Crosby had three assists. Tomas Tatar had the lone goal for the Canadiens that night. Jarry bounced back as the starter for the Penguins, stopping 34 of the 35 shots he faced with a .971 SV%.
Third Time’s the Charm
The play-in round matchup will be tough to predict. Price can shut the door in a five-game series, which could lead to a Canadiens win, but he will need his team to score. Max Domi, a Type 1 diabetic who suffers from Celiac disease has decided to return for the play-in round. Jonathan Drouin will also play after missing a good chunk of the season and has the opportunity to prove that he was worth trading for. The Penguins on the other hand will hope to continue their great success in the playoffs this past decade with Crosby and Malkin leading the way.
After a four and half month layoff, Guentzel returns for the team as well. Guentzel had 20 goals and 43 points in 39 games before being ruled out for the remainder of the season due to shoulder surgery. With the forward back and healthy, he will play an important role in the play-in round for the Penguins. The club also have questions in net regarding who will start between Jarry and Murray.
The two split starts this season, winning 20 games each. The decision between the two will extend past the postseason and into the offseason when both goalies become restricted free agents. Regardless of the question marks in net, the Penguins should be able to win the play-in round against the Canadiens unless Price pulls off a Halak-like performance.
Sartaaj has been watching hockey for over 15 years and covers the Vancouver Canucks for The Hockey Writers.