Scoring goals has been a challenge for the Habs in recent years and this one was no exception. They only managed to be tied for 18th in the league in goals which isn’t much cause for optimism heading into their series against Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, there are a few things to watch for offensively from Montreal.
On paper, Pittsburgh has the better top line with Sidney Crosby centring Jake Guentzel (Conor Sheary appears to have a shot at sticking on the right wing). However, the Phillip Danault line has been dominant at five-on-five this season and have the top three CF percentages among all NHL regulars at even strength ranging between 59.6 % and 61.2%. It’s reasonable to think those numbers will come down as they shadow Crosby’s line (a matchup Claude Julien will certainly want as often as possible) but they’re talented enough to have a chance of playing them to a net neutral outcome. That’s not normally an ideal outcome for a number one line but here, it may be the realistic one.
Of course, the Penguins don’t have just one elite centre – they have two. Evgeni Malkin will likely play alongside Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust on a line where their lowest scorer (Zucker) had more goals than Montreal’s top second liner between Jonathan Drouin, Nick Suzuki, and Joel Armia. I know Julien really likes what he sees from his newly-assembled trio and a healthy Drouin can make a difference if he’s at his best but this is a matchup that has to be concerning to the Canadiens.
Without getting too deep into the matchup minutiae, the bottom six options are relatively close. Pittsburgh veterans Patrick Marleau (yes, he plays for them now) and Patric Hornqvist are coming off of quiet years but still provide some offensive upside while their fourth line is a step weaker. For the Habs, they appear to be intent to spread things around with Max Domi looking to be on the fourth line. That could create some favourable matchups to try to exploit but again, Montreal was a team that had trouble scoring this season. Taking one of your better offensive players and putting him with roster fillers could also backfire and mitigate any potential advantage. It’s also worth noting that Pittsburgh’s fourth line (Zach Aston-Reese-Teddy Bleuger-Brandon Tanev) is one of the stronger defensive trios in the league which should negate some of the efforts to split things up.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is an intriguing wild card as he has come to camp in shape and appears to have earned a spot back on the third line. If he plays like he did in the first half of the season though, he may not be in that position for long but he’s one of the few players that has another level to reach. Doing that in this series would certainly give them a boost. A healthy Paul Byron and his speed could also be a factor.
Of course, any discussion about the offence isn’t complete without looking at the power play. The Penguins, despite being buoyed by their top forwards, surprisingly weren’t much better than the Habs with the man advantage this season. They posted a 19.91% success rate which was good for 16th while the Canadiens checked in at 17.74%, good for 22nd. However, Pittsburgh was a top-10 team shorthanded (82.11%) while Montreal was 19th (78.67%) and down one of their top penalty killers in Nate Thompson who was moved at the deadline.
The special teams battle basically boils down to Montreal’s penalty kill against Pittsburgh’s power play. Let’s face it, the Habs having a 30-minute power play practice that saw them play to a 1-1 draw does not inspire much in the way of confidence that they’ll be able to do anything beyond teeing up Shea Weber which seemed to be the extent of their creativity during the season. Anything they get there is a bonus at this point.
It’s this element that may very well turn things. At even strength, the Habs should be able to hold their own although that second line matchup is a little concerning. But a team with as much firepower as Pittsburgh has is going to have their opportunities to exploit what had at times been a leaky penalty kill. If that happens, Montreal is going to be in trouble no matter how sharp Carey Price plays.
Some have suggested that the forward matchup skews heavily in favour of Pittsburgh. I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly but Pittsburgh certainly does carry the advantage heading into this series which is why they’re the justifiable strong favourites heading in.