No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. No. 12 Montreal Canadiens
Penguins: 40-23-6, 623 points percentage
Canadiens: 31-31-9, .500 points percentage
Season series: PIT 2-1-0; MTL 1-1-1
The Montreal Canadiens have dealt with the perception of being the least deserving team in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Yet they have a unique opportunity to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2017, even with the fewest wins and lowest points percentage of the 24 participating teams when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
"The outside opinion about our group doesn't matter one bit," forward Brendan Gallagher said. "What's important to us is how we feel in our locker room. As long as our guys have confidence and we believe that we can achieve this, it's possible. If you lose that belief, it's not possible. We have a task [against] Pittsburgh, and that's where our focus is. You make your own odds."
The Penguins were first in the Metropolitan Division on Feb. 18 after a 23-6-2 run that began Dec. 4, despite injuries to forwards Sidney Crosby (28 games missed), Evgeni Malkin (14) and Jake Guentzel (30). They retain the core of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, with Crosby, Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang each looking for their fourth NHL championship.
"It would be unbelievable," Letang said. "When you have the chance to be on a team like ours and to be successful like we've been, to have another championship would solidify what we've been able to accomplish in Pittsburgh."
Canadiens: Forward Jonathan Drouin scored 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in the first 19 games of the season, when Montreal averaged 3.53 goals per game and was 11-5-3. He then missed three months after surgery for a torn tendon in his wrist. The Canadiens were 15-18-4 without him, including two eight-game winless streaks, and scored 2.81 goals per game.
Penguins: Malkin started the season in better condition than he was in 2018-19 and led Pittsburgh with 74 points (25 goals, 49 assists) in 55 games, including 38 (11 goals, 27 assists) in Crosby's absence to help the Penguins go 18-6-4. He stayed in shape during the pause by chopping wood in Miami, and his line with Jason Zucker and Bryan Rust was impressive during intrasquad scrimmages. A dominant Malkin combined with the forward depth added before the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 24 (Zucker, Conor Sheary, Evan Rodrigues, Patrick Marleau) could help the Penguins make this a short series.
Video: TOR@MTL: Drouin slips puck by Hutchinson on breakaway
Canadiens: Carey Price's regular-season numbers were pedestrian (58 games, 27-25-6, 2.79 goals-against average, .909 save percentage). He also was tied for third in the NHL with four shutouts, played more minutes than anyone (3,439:49), and was second to Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets in saves (1,595) and shots against (1,755). Price remains capable of stealing a series in his 13th NHL season. If he falters, Charlie Lindgren, Cayden Primeau and Michael McNiven are competing to be the backup, which coach Claude Julien said July 15 was "a really nice problem to have right now."
Penguins: Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry each has a chance to start Game 1, coach Mike Sullivan said July 18. Murray is a two-time Cup winner but went 20-11-5 with a 2.87 GAA and an NHL career-worst .899 save percentage in 38 games. Jarry was 12-2-0 with a 1.78 GAA, a .941 save percentage and three shutouts in 14 games (13 starts) from Nov. 16-Dec. 30. Jarry started 22 of 35 games from Dec. 4-Feb. 26.
Numbers to know
Canadiens: Price was tied for 31st with Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings in GAA among NHL goalies who played at least 20 games, but he had a 2.32 GAA and .929 save percentage in three games against the Penguins.
Penguins: Pittsburgh has scored 3.60 goals per game in its past 10 regular-season games against Montreal.
Canadiens: Phillip Danault quietly has evolved into a reliable center often matched against the best of the opposition. He'll have to deal with Crosby and Malkin and lead a group of centers (Max Domi, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and potentially Jake Evans) without NHL playoff experience. Danault was seventh in voting for the Selke Trophy, given to the best defensive forward in the League last season and could finish higher after this season. Montreal needs him at that level in the Qualifiers.
Penguins: John Marino, a sixth-round pick (No. 154) of the Edmonton Oilers in the 2015 NHL Draft, made the Penguins straight out of Harvard University and was fourth among NHL rookie defensemen with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists) in 56 games, and his plus-17 rating was tied for second with Philippe Myers of the Philadelphia Flyers (Adam Fox of the New York Rangers, plus-22). The 23-year-old averaged 20:15 of ice time, third among Penguins defensemen, and stabilized a veteran group that includes Letang, 33, Jack Johnson, 33, Justin Schultz, 30, and Brian Dumoulin, 28.
Video: OTT@PIT: Marino scores in 1st period
They said it
"We can be underdogs all day. That's fine. It's a situation that we've all been in before and nobody should take offense to that and no one should listen to that. I think the belief in this room is anything can happen. You look at the history of the Stanley Cup (Playoffs) over the years and strange things have happened. We've got a belief that anything's possible and we'll see what happens." -- Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber
"We're going to stay in the moment and not get ahead of ourselves, control what we can each and every day. I'm excited about this group, and I'm really excited about the opportunity we have in front of us." -- Penguins coach Mike Sullivan
Will win if …
Canadiens: Price reverts to his form from the 2017 playoffs, when he had a 1.86 GAA and .933 save percentage in six games. The Canadiens averaged 1.83 goals per game in a six-game loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round and need to score more to defeat the Penguins. Tomas Tatar (22 goals) and Gallagher (22) were the only Montreal players to score more than 17 goals this season.
Penguins: The old guard (Crosby, Malkin, Letang) and new blood (Marino, Zucker) jell quickly, Guentzel shows no signs of rust in his first NHL games since Dec. 30, and Pittsburgh doesn't look past its opponent.
Penguins projected lineup
Jake Guentzel -- Sidney Crosby -- Conor Sheary
Jason Zucker -- Evgeni Malkin -- Bryan Rust
Patrick Marleau -- Jared McCann -- Patric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-Reese -- Teddy Blueger -- Brandon Tanev
Kris Letang -- Brian Dumoulin
John Marino -- Marcus Pettersson
Justin Schultz -- Jack Johnson
Scratched: Evan Rodrigues, Sam Lafferty, Kevin Czuczman, Chad Ruhwedel, Anthony Angello, Adam Johnson, Sam Miletic, Sam Poulin, Phil Varone, Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Juuso Riikola, Casey DeSmith, Emil Larmi
Unfit to play: None
Canadiens projected lineup
Tomas Tatar -- Phillip Danault -- Brendan Gallagher
Jonathan Drouin -- Nick Suzuki -- Joel Armia
Paul Byron -- Jesperi Kotkaniemi -- Artturi Lehkonen
Jordan Weal -- Max Domi -- Dale Weise
Ben Chiarot -- Shea Weber
Brett Kulak -- Jeff Petry
Victor Mete -- Xavier Ouellet
Scratched: Charles Hudon, Gustav Olofsson, Christian Folin, Noah Juulsen, Jake Evans, Josh Brook, Ryan Poehling, Cale Fleury, Alex Belzile, Laurent Dauphin, Cayden Primeau, Michael McNiven
Unfit to play: None