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Canadiens 'shouldn't feel ashamed' to play in Cup Qualifiers

Aim to make most of opportunity against favored Penguins

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

With a one in 24 chance of winning the 2020 Stanley Cup, Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien makes no apologies for being among the teams in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

"We shouldn't feel ashamed of being here," Julien said Friday on the eve of Game 1 of the best-of-5 qualifier series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"If anything, we should thrive on the opportunity and we should take advantage of it. We've got a young team (average age 26.4, fifth-youngest in the Qualifiers). We know we're going to have to be playing as best we can, maybe even over our heads if we plan on moving forward here. 

"We're aware that we can do that. I think the confidence and the will to do it has to be there and hopefully we can start showing that tomorrow night."

Video: SAP by the Numbers: Canadiens vs Penguins

The Canadiens are the No. 12 seed in the Eastern Conference; the Penguins are the No. 5 seed. They will play one of four best-of-5 series at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the Eastern hub city. The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery, to be held Aug. 10.

Pittsburgh has a combined 1,208 games of postseason experience, the most among the teams still playing; the 400 games of the Canadiens is third-fewest, ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets (383) and Calgary Flames (343).

Three Penguins -- forward Patrick Marleau (191) and centers Sidney Crosby (164) and Evgeni Malkin (162) -- have played 117 more postseason games than the entire Canadiens roster, but Pittsburgh will not be complacent, coach Mike Sullivan said Friday.

"I don't think there's a single person in our organization that takes the Canadiens lightly," Sullivan said. "We understand how good a team they are. We have a lot of respect for Montreal. We're going to have to be at our best in order to have success. Our focus is on the one game in front of us. We're not going to get ahead of ourselves. We're going to do everything we can to put our best game on the ice for Game 1."

Canadiens captain Shea Weber, his 65 NHL postseason games making him the most seasoned Montreal player, said he is encouraged by the excitement he's seeing in his dressing room, everyone feeling he belongs, no one walking on eggshells no matter that they're stepping onto the NHL's most pressure-packed stage.

Weber, who will turn 35 on Aug. 14, said he feels the energy in himself and his teammates, thankful for an opportunity that didn't seem likely on March 12, when the NHL season was paused due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

"A few months ago we weren't really in a position, obviously we weren't officially out (of the postseason)," the defenseman said. "But we're excited. It's almost like a new season start here as everyone's kind of in the same spot. No momentum, no nothing. You don't know what's going to happen. We've got to get through this Qualifier and hopefully build some momentum (from) Game 1."

Just a little more than two months ago, no one knew whether the NHL would resume play. But the excitement has grown since plans were put in place for the postseason, 16 teams paired in eight best-of-5 series and a round-robin among the top four in each conference to determine seeds for the playoffs.

"Everybody's kind of experienced a different road here in the last few months," Weber said. "No matter where you were, everyone had a different situation, different restrictions. We kind of all kept in contact through the whole thing and it kept us together that way. It seems like forever. It hasn't been that long, but guys are ready to go."

"We've been doing a lot of preparation the past few days for the first game. You don't want to give the players too much, but enough that they'll be excited. I'm excited to be here and to have a chance to participate." independent correspondent Wes Crosby contributed to this report

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