The Montreal Canadiens’ unexpected inclusion in the NHL play-in/playoff bracket gives the team a chance to salvage another disappointing season. Their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins also gives several players an opportunity for redemption while others will be looking to move up the depth chart. Here is a look at the Habs with the most to play for when hockey returns.
It is no secret that Montreal’s franchise player struggled during the regular season, going through stretches where he looked like a shadow of his former self. It also goes without saying that the Canadiens will go as far as Carey Price will take them this postseason.
The Stanley Cup is just about the only award missing from Price’s abundant trophy case and that can be attributed to his less than stellar career playoff record, which indicates he has lost more games than he’s won. In their last playoff appearance in 2016-17, the Canadiens lost in six games to the New York Rangers in the opening round despite Price putting up a .933 save percentage. His deepest playoff run in 2013-14 ended with an injury during the Eastern Conference Final, once again versus the Rangers.
Still, Price has proven he can play his best when the spotlight shines brightest after backstopping Canada to victories at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
Despite his struggles this season, Price was once again voted the best goalie in the league in the 2019-20 NHLPA Player Poll, so it’s no wonder that the Penguins are wary of facing him. Price not only has an opportunity to redeem himself, but he can also prove his peers right.
If Montreal’s No. 1 goaltender can rediscover some of the form that won him the Hart and Vezina trophies at the end of a 44-win season in 2014-15, the Canadiens could make a deep playoff run, which would be even more surprising than the second chance they’ve been given.
If he’s permitted by doctors to play as a Type 1 diabetic during the COVID-19 pandemic, Max Domi will make his postseason debut when the Canadiens face the Penguins and it will be a crucial series for him for several reasons.
The 25-year-old will be looking to make up for a sophomore slump in his second year with the Habs after putting up 44 points in 2019-20 compared to 72 last year. Reuniting with Jonathan Drouin should give Domi a boost. They were a prolific duo earlier this season that will need to produce again. Not to mention, Drouin also has a lot to prove against Pittsburgh.
As a pending restricted free agent, Domi will also be playing for a new contract, which he hopes will be a long-term one to stay in Montreal. With the salary cap expected to remain flat due to the pandemic, there isn’t a lot of room for a big contract. He will have to show management he’s worth more than a one-year extension with consistent and inspired play.
Domi will likely want to prove his mettle as a centreman as well given the stiff internal competition he’ll soon be facing for a spot up the middle. His ability to succeed could eventually dictate his future with the team.
The play-in series isn’t the last chance for Domi by any means, but he can certainly make a lasting impression.
Artturi Lehkonen’s ability to play effectively and efficiently in all three zones is well-documented. He is one of Montreal’s most reliable players for a reason.
However, after scoring 18 goals during his rookie campaign in 2016-17, the Finn has struggled to find the back of the net consistently even though he gets his fair share of chances. This season, he posted 13 goals and 27 points in addition to being a healthy scratch once.
Lehkonen put his scoring touch on display as a junior. He put up 28 goals and 54 points in 40 games with TPS in Turku during the 2010-11 season. The 24-year-old also scored 35 points in 41 games while representing Finland on the international stage during his junior career.
If Lehkonen can produce regularly in a top-nine role for the Habs and take his game to the next level to become a more complete player, it not only bodes well for their play-in series, but also the rest of Lehkonen’s days in the NHL.
The Laval Rocket Contingent
Since general manager Marc Bergevin sold some of his assets at the trade deadline, there are roster spots to fill for the series against Pittsburgh, which represents a golden opportunity for players who spent the majority of the season in the AHL with the Laval Rocket.
Jake Evans, Cale Fleury, Charles Hudon, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, and Cayden Primeau all made their presence felt in both Montreal and Laval this year, and are on the cusp of playing in the NHL full-time. They have the chance to show the Canadiens’ brass they belong and solidify their places with the big club next season. Evans, for example, is sure to get an audition as the fourth-line center and he could lock up the position for the next training camp with a strong showing during the play-in series.
Montreal’s rapidly improving prospects will gain valuable playoff experience that will further their development. Their ability to fill these lineup holes against the Penguins should also influence Bergevin’s offseason decisions.
While some of the Canadiens’ fan base worry about potentially losing a lottery draft pick, the franchise and a few of its most important players have much more to gain during Phase 4 of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan.