Officially speaking, the Montreal Canadiens have not yet made the playoffs. However, the nature of their initial play-in series against the Pittsburgh Penguins undeniably presents the perfect opportunity for some to emerge as heroes, sometimes the unlikeliest of the bunch. If that’s not playoff hockey, what is?
To drive the point home, remember Rene Bourque? If not, you’ve probably blocked out his nearly three seasons with the Canadiens, maybe for emotional reasons because of the bad Michael Cammalleri trade that brought him to town, maybe because most of his shifts were so gosh darn forgettable.
Regardless, there are a few weeks of Bourque’s time with the Habs that stand out: the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Over a span of 17 games and three rounds, Bourque scored a team-leading eight goals re-igniting thoughts of him living up to the potential he displayed as a regular 20-goal scorer with the Calgary Flames… And then he notched just two assists in 13 games the following season before mercifully getting traded to the Anaheim Ducks for stalwart defenseman Bryan Allen. Still, no one can take those few weeks away from Bourque.
Now, for Habs fans, it’s hopefully someone else’s turn to capture their imaginations over the course of a multi-round Cup run… maybe even past a single postseason this time. So, who exactly is in the best position to slip under the Penguins’ radar and go on a legendary hot streak and carve their name in everlasting Canadiens lore? Here are the top five candidates:
5. Joel Armia
Forward Joel Armia hit new career-highs this past season, despite getting in just 58 games. Granted, those highs comprised just 16 goals and 30 points, but there’s no denying the 27-year-old’s skill as a former first-round pick (2011) or his capacity to get hot considering he started off this past season with six goals and eight points in his first nine games.
Armia was initially a throw-in by the Winnipeg Jets so that the Habs would take Steve Mason’s contract off their hands. Considering the Habs promptly bought Mason out, it’s fairly clear the deal revolved around Armia, that general manager Marc Bergevin saw something in him many others didn’t. The Penguins present Armia with the perfect opportunity to show everyone else too.
4. Victor Mete
For his first two seasons as a Hab, defenseman Victor Mete was about as snake-bitten as they come. His only goal in that span came with the Laval Rocket in the American Hockey League. Then this season started and he veritably exploded from an offensive standpoint with four, count ‘em, one, two, three, four markers.
Considering Mete’s skill set as a mobile, puck-moving defenseman, it shouldn’t come as a shock. He at the very least has a good chance of keeping it going and maybe taking it up a notch. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he could conceivably be paired with Jeff Petry, arguably the Canadiens’ true No. 1 defenseman.
3. Jesperi Kotkaniemi
In many ways, the Canadiens’ success this upcoming play-in round (and hopefully beyond) depends on Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s ability to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore season. After all, if the Canadiens stars can successfully cancel out the Penguins’ stars, the war will be won or lost by their depth players, and, at this juncture, despite the high hopes the Habs have for him, that description perfectly describes the young Finn.
There’s no denying 2019-20 was a big letdown for Kotkaniemi after he scored a relatively impressive 11 goals and 34 points as an 18-year-old rookie. He managed just eight points this past season, limited to 36 appearances because of a concussion, demotion and subsequent spleen injury.
Now that he’s healthy, it’s reasonable to give Kotkaniemi benefit of the doubt and argue, of his two seasons of NHL action, this last one was the fluke. In such an instance, he’s a prime candidate to break out against the Penguins.
2. Artturi Lehkonen
It should be patently obvious what the Habs have in forward Artturi Lehkonen by now. He’s a player who’s always in the play, often driving it, without the consistent ability to finish it off. He’s nevertheless been able to contribute in other ways, sneakily scoring approximately 30 points in each of his four seasons with the Habs.
Had the regular season played out over the full 82 games, Lehkonen would have been in great position to eclipse that mark and the career-high 31 he sored in 2018-19. Hell, with 13 goals (14 assists) in the 70 games he played, he could have potentially made a run at the 18 goals he scored during his 2016-17 rookie campaign. Those 18 goals are a true testament of his offensive capability, especially if pucks start bouncing Lehkonen’s way.
1. Paul Byron
A general theme that ties this list together is how players who only got in a limited number of games this season are potentially primed to rediscover their scoring form against the Penguins. It’s no different with the No. 1 entry, Paul Byron.
Byron played just 29 games this past season due to knee surgery, scoring four goals and six assists. However, in two of the previous three seasons he had scored 20 or more. In the third, he notched 15 in 56 games (a 22-goal pace).
In effect, had Byron been able to stay healthy over the last few years, he may not have even qualified for this list as a perennial scoring threat for the Habs. Like Bourque, he’s a multi-time 20-goal scorer, but unlike the ex-Hab his work ethic has never come into question. So, assuming Byron still has his trademark speed, it’s conceivable he continues to pile them up, starting against the Penguins.