The Penguins narrowly missed out on a top-four seed in the East that would have avoided the Qualifying Round altogether while the Habs had sold several veterans around the trade deadline, knowing they weren’t playoff-bound. Now, Montreal is indeed officially heading for the postseason while Pittsburgh’s season is over. Here’s a look back at the series.
The Week That Was
Aug. 1: Canadiens 3, Penguins 2 (OT) – This was a game that had just about everything. Pittsburgh got off to a hot start with Carey Price standing on his head for the first half of the first period but once Jesperi Kotkaniemi opened the scoring, Montreal settled down. Nick Suzuki doubled the lead in the second and Montreal looked to have some control. However, the Penguins erased that deficit just minutes later. The penalty-filled affair featured two penalty shots which is a rarity; even rarer was the fact that both shooters (Conor Sheary and Jonathan Drouin) didn’t hit the net. While Drouin’s miss in overtime was painful, the frustration was eased when Jeff Petry got to the puck in the slot and sniped it past Matt Murray to give the Habs the opening game.
Aug. 3: Penguins 3, Canadiens 1 – Sidney Crosby opened up the scoring early and that was it for the longest time. It remained a one-goal game until late in the third period which was a spot the Habs were probably comfortable with. Jason Zucker looked to put it out of reach with a little more than five minutes left but Kotkaniemi got that back a few minutes later to set the stage for a close finish. Unfortunately, the Habs couldn’t muster up much and Jake Guentzel sealed the outcome with a late empty-netter.
Aug. 5: Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 – Montreal’s back end helped steal the show in this one. Shea Weber opened up the scoring and had a hand in Montreal’s first three goals. While he gave the Habs the lead early, they squandered it quickly with a pair of power play goals allowed (the latter of which came on a Weber penalty). Teddy Blueger made it 3-1 early in the second which sent Claude Julien to the line blender. He opted to move the centres around at the second commercial break and it paid immediate dividends as Jonathan Drouin redirected one home on the next shift. Paul Byron scored on a wraparound less than six minutes later to tie it up. After being the hero in Game 1, Petry picked up his second winner early in the third period as he sniped one top-shelf past Murray from an awkward angle and Price (aided by the defence) made it hold up.
Aug. 7: Canadiens 2, Penguins 0 – From the start, the Habs seemed to want to slow things down and make this a low-scoring, low-event game after Game 3 was more of a back and forth affair. It was mission accomplished on that front as the scoring chances for the first 50 minutes were few and far between. Call it a perfect road game, even though the Canadiens were the ‘home’ team. A 0-0 game in overtime looked like an inevitable outcome before Montreal jumped on a bad clearing attempt. Four Pittsburgh players were caught puck watching on Byron who was able to narrowly slide the puck through a seam between the post and Tristan Jarry into the slot for Artturi Lehkonen who tapped it home. Weber sealed the deal with an empty netter on a clearing attempt from behind his own net to pull off the big upset.
Goals: Kotkaniemi/Petry/Weber (2)
Assists: Paul Byron (3)
Points: Byron/Weber (4)
+/-: Byron/Chiarot/Lehkonen (+6)
PIMS: Joel Armia (8)
Shots: Brendan Gallagher (17)
News And Notes
– It wasn’t a memorable first ‘playoff’ appearance for Jake Evans as he looked to have suffered a concussion in the second period of Game 3 on a hit from Brandon Tanev. Of course, with the NHL and NHLPA agreeing to putting even more secrecy around lineup absences (I’m starting to miss upper and lower-body injuries), all we’ll know for sure is that he’s ‘unfit to play’.
– I think Montreal’s statistician has made their way into the Toronto bubble. The Canadiens lead the NHL in hits by a country mile with 171 heading into Sunday’s action (Florida at 134 is second). Leading the way for the Habs in that department isn’t who you’d first expect – it’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi who has 19. He had just 51 in 36 games during the regular season.
Last Game’s Lines:
Tatar – Suzuki – Gallagher
Drouin – Kotkaniemi – Armia
Byron – Danault – Lehkonen
Belzile – Domi – Weise
Chiarot – Weber
Kulak – Petry
Ouellet – Mete
The Series Ahead
So the Habs have their next opponent and it’s Philadelphia. They may not have the most threatening roster on paper compared to some others that were in the round robin portion but this isn’t an ideal matchup for them by any stretch. (Although of the four top teams, only Washington might have been considered ‘ideal’.)
Unlike Pittsburgh whose top talents were well-known, the Flyers boast more of a by-committee attack with three lines capable of scoring with regularity as they’ve mixed up their youngsters and veterans (James van Riemsdyk is a third liner, for example). This won’t be a situation where Claude Julien can key in on shutting down two lines and be confident that the other two won’t do anything which was a big part of them getting past Pittsburgh. Faceoffs will be an area of concern for the Habs as Philly boasts Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux that are elite in that department (Giroux is currently on the wing but has played centre a lot this year) plus Nate Thompson who as Montreal fans know can still win a draw. Expect Phillip Danault to be thrown out in all kinds of situations as a result.
Defensively, Ivan Provorov remains one of the more unheralded top pairing players and he heads up a defensive corps that is deep and effective, even if some of their players aren’t as well-known. The biggest difference for them will be the ability to run three pairings with consistency while we know Montreal has to shrink their bench early and often. Over a seven-game series, that’s going to be a factor.
Price’s track record gives him the early advantage over Carter Hart but the youngster looked sharp down the stretch and that continued in his round robin games. It’s his first ever playoff series which makes him a little bit of a wild card if there are any early jitters. That said, he has been in enough big games over his career that there shouldn’t be much in the way of nerves and he’s good enough to steal a game on his own, something that wasn’t the case with Pittsburgh’s goaltending.
Are the Habs capable of winning this series? Sure. If Price stays around this level and the offence eventually wakes up (more on that shortly), they can hang around and keep it close; when that happens, all bets are off. But there’s a reason they’re once again a massive underdog heading in. The Flyers appear to have picked up where they left off and that’s not good news for anyone in the East, especially the Canadiens.
I think the biggest takeaway from the Pittsburgh series for Montreal is going to be the centre shuffle in Game 3. It wasn’t that Phillip Danault was playing poorly by any stretch (while his line wasn’t scoring, they weren’t getting scored on either) but Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi made strong cases for more playing time. While the end result wasn’t a big jump in production, it was enough to show Claude Julien that they have another option to turn to if things go sideways. I wouldn’t be shocked if the lines go back to the way they were to start the next round as I suspect he’ll want his top line to get another look in the hopes that a new opponent opens things up.
If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic about the next (first) round, I’d look at Montreal’s lack of firepower in this series. Seriously. Their seven highest-paid forwards combined for a whopping two goals (Drouin and Byron) and they still won. Yes, Carey Price was fantastic and their top three blueliners stepped up in a big way but even if they take a step back, that should be at least somewhat offset by the putrid production being improved upon.
One area I’m concerned about is the third pairing. I don’t trust Xavier Ouellet to make the right reads defensively but I’ll give credit where credit is due as he was a bit better as the series went on. But Victor Mete? Yikes. I get that this was his first ‘postseason’ action and that there might be some nerves but he was a deer in the headlights at times and looked physically overmatched against a team that was anything but physical. Forget about whether they can afford to keep throwing a minor leaguer out there in Ouellet; can they afford to keep putting Mete in the lineup? He doesn’t contribute on special teams and there were no signs of improvement as the series went on. Christian Folin, Cale Fleury, and Noah Juulsen aren’t as good of skaters as he is but if they’re looking for defensive competency at this point, each of them might be better options than Mete, especially against a more physical team like the Flyers. He was a regular this season but that may need to change for now.