If the forward group leans heavily in favour of the Penguins and the goaltending leans in favour of the Habs, the defensive matchup is a bit more even between the two clubs.
Both teams boast an elite defender leading their brigade as Shea Weber and Kris Letang offer a vastly different style of play to lead their collective groups. The Pens usually play Letang with Brian Dumoulin at even strength as Dumoulin plays the safeguard which gives Letang the freedom to roam. This can be seen through Dumoulin’s modest eight points that accompany a rather good +17 rating. The Habs have played Weber with Ben Chiarot since the midway point of the season. After a slow start, Chiarot really became the best left defender (and it wasn’t even close) prompting coach Julien to play Chiarot excessively, sometimes even more than Weber and Jeff Petry. The outcome was a pretty good 21 points in 69 games for Chiarot, although it comes with a -5 rating. Still, I think it’s advantage Montreal on the top pair, especially if Montreal can get a lead and defend it.
The second pairing for Pittsburgh features some fresh faces as Marcus Petterson and John Marino are relatively unknown. Still, they’ve combined for 48 points and a +26 rating over the shortened season. Compare this to Montreal is not a contest. Jeff Petry is likely a better player than both, but the revolving door to his left leaves a sour taste in any analysis being made. Neither of Victor Mete or Brett Kulak have been consistent enough to be quality second-pairing defenders, so the advantage belongs to Pittsburgh there.
Oftentimes, a series will swing with depth players over-performing in the moment. So, who are the depth players on each blue line and who has the potential to swing this heated comparison? Pittsburgh plays Justin Schultz on the third pair as a power play specialist. Schultz is a definite key candidate in the series because he can be lethal on the man advantage or horrendous at even strength (I’m getting flashes of 2010 Sergei Gonchar, right?) Erik Gudbranson, Jack Johnson, and Chad Ruhwedel round out the group. All three are serviceable and steady, but none usually provide much spark to see potential boom/bust candidates.
Montreal’s depth is far more intriguing, and this could really be a positive or a negative. Montreal has Christian Folin, Kulak (because it appears that Mete is getting the first chance with Petry), and Xavier Ouellet at the bottom. If Julien opts for these options, their potential for surprises is lesser than the Pittsburgh group and so is their skill, so it’s a definite Pens advantage. However, Julien also has Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen in camp. These two youngsters would represent a far greater risk and could push the balance further in Pittsburgh’s favour. However, they also hold the most skill of the bottom guys mentioned here.
In the end, both teams boast a top-four that has some star power but lacks consistency within the group. Both play some proven yet limited vets at the bottom of their lineup. Pittsburgh’s depth, for me, is better and therefore I prefer their back end. However, the potential additions of Juulsen and Fleury could mix things up. If they play big in big moments, they could easily push the scale back in favour of the Habs in this close comparison. So advantage Pittsburgh… for now.