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Canadiens path against Penguins in Qualifier must pass Crosby, Malkin

Plan to utilize Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Domi to help against Pittsburgh's top scorers

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

If the Montreal Canadiens are to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, they'll need to find a way to control their opponent's two-headed monster, otherwise known as centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

And in the view of Canadiens coach Claude Julien, it will require a full team effort, the entire length of his bench, when Pittsburgh, the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, plays Montreal, the No. 12 seed, in a best-of-5 qualifier series that starts Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). 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 as part of Phase 2 of the NHL Draft Lottery on Aug. 10.

The Qualifiers consist of eight best-of-5 series and two four-team round-robins. The Eastern Conference teams will play games at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, with the Western Conference at Rogers Place in Edmonton. 

Without the home team's advantage of the final line change for Games 1 and 2 of their Qualifier, it seems unlikely the Canadiens will be able to strategically match their No. 1 center Phillip Danault and forwards Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar against the Penguins top line of Crosby between Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary, and the No. 2 line, with Malkin between Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust.

So Julien will call upon 20-year-old centers Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, as well as forward Max Domi to rally their linemates in a bid to defuse a potent Pittsburgh attack, which was 10th in the League this season averaging 3.20 goals per game.

Video: PIT@PHI: Sheary scores opening goal from the circle

"I may not have the last matchup so even if I talk to one of my young centermen, which I will do, it doesn't mean that's who's going to be facing those kind of guys," Julien said Wednesday. "We've got four lines that we feel have a certain amount of balance. We really do need guys to put the emphasis there, as far as trying to have four lines going here."

Crosby and Malkin each have won the Stanley Cup three times. Malkin led the Penguins with 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 55 games before the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus; Crosby scored 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists) in 41 games.

"Experience-wise, we don't compare with Pittsburgh, guys like Crosby, Malkin, the [defenseman Kris] Letangs of this world on the back end," Julien said. "The chance that we have of winning is by having everybody being able to step up and maybe play a little bit above their heads and have that confidence to do that. 

"That's what we're trying to build on. It doesn't matter who I want to have against certain lines; it's going to be hard to have that matchup. If I do, great. If not, then I'm going to need other guys to step up. That's the reality of things."

Though singing Danault's praises as a 200-foot player who excels with or without the puck, Julien knows he'll need to roll four lines as much as possible.

"Phillip takes great pride in being good at both ends of the ice," Julien said. "I hope his line will be good to the point where they'll spend much more time in the offensive zone than in the defensive zone. That will mean that if he's playing against a guy like Crosby, Crosby will have to spend more time defending than attacking. …

"[Penguins coach] Mike Sullivan is aware that we would love to use Danault's trio against Crosby and Malkin. I see it will be a difficult challenge when we don't have the last change. Phil can't cover two centers anyway, unless Sullivan makes it easy for me. We'll have to trust other players, too."

Danault, second on Montreal this season with 47 points (13 goals, 34 assists) in 71 games, said during training camp he's ready for the challenge, no matter who's lined up across from him for the face-off.

"Crosby is more of a two-way player and I'd say that Malkin is more offensive, but the challenge will be the same," Danault said. "I've never played against them in the [postseason] so it might take a bit of adaptation. I'm going to prepare the same way as every single game during the year. I play against big lines. It's my role and I take pride in this. We take pride in this as a line and as a team, too.

"Obviously I know Crosby's a really, really good player offensively. Defensively, he's a two-way forward. So, it's going to be a big challenge, probably one of the biggest of my career so far. I'm going to embrace it."

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