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Series Storylines: Penguins vs. Canadiens

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The Pittsburgh Penguins will open up the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Qualifying Round. Here are the biggest storylines to follow as the series progresses.

Pittsburgh and Montreal meet in the postseason for the first time since 2010. That year, Penguins assistant coach Jacques Martin - then head coach of the Canadiens - guided his team to a seven-game series victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Ten years later, this postseason is anything but normal. The NHL pressed pause on the regular season on March 12 and eventually canceled the remainder, instead going straight to a modified playoff format. 

The league expanded into a 24-team field (12 for each conference) and seeded the teams based on their regular-season winning percentage. The top four teams from each conference are playing a round robin tournament to determine the 1-4 seeding, while the remaining eight teams are playing a best-of-5 qualifying round. That means the fifth-seeded Penguins are facing the 12th-seeded Canadiens.

The series is being played without fans at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, which is serving as one of two hub cities along with Edmonton. After getting a taste of what that would be like during their exhibition game against the Flyers on Tuesday, the Penguins said it actually wasn't too much of an adjustment. 

"It was definitely a little bit different without the crowd noise in warmups and also during the game, but other than that, I didn't really think about it too much as the game was going on," defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. "You could still feel the energy and the shifts in momentum. It still had the same competitiveness. It's definitely something that we'll get used to more and more that we play. But for the most part, I didn't think it was as bad as I first thought it was going to be."

Another aspect that will be an adjustment is going from a seven-game series to a five-game series, where the margin for error becomes much slimmer.

"You don't have additional games that maybe provide an opportunity for you to play through things," Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. "We're going to have to try to be at our very best from the drop of the puck. We're just going to stay right in the moment. We're going to take each game as it comes. We're going to try to put our best game out there on the ice, and at the end of that game we'll evaluate. If adjustments need to be made - whether that's tactical or personnel-based - we'll try to make the best decisions as a coaching staff."

Finally, another challenge for teams will be ice conditions, particularly for Pittsburgh and Montreal. The first three games of their series are set for 8 p.m., and with games also being played at noon and 4 p.m. those days, they aren't sure what the quality of ice is going to be like by the time the last puck drop rolls around.

"It's certainly something that we have discussed with our guys. Common sense would suggest that if you have three NHL games on the same sheet of ice and we're the third game in the middle of the summer, it's a whole lot more challenging to maintain a high quality of ice. That just might be a reality we face when we're up there. that might be one of the challenges that teams have to face. But as I said to our guys, both teams have to play on the same ice surface. That's just something we're just going to have to be aware of and acknowledge. If we have to simplify our game through that process, then that's something we're going to have to do."

As if those storylines weren't enough, here are some more to follow throughout the series…

YOUNG, HUNGRY AND WITH NOTHING TO LOSE

The Canadiens were 10 points out of a playoff spot with a 31-31-9 record when the NHL pressed pause, and had less than a one-percent chance to grab one. But with the league's expanded playoff format, the Canadiens are getting a second chance to make a run, and it's a unique opportunity they want to take full advantage of. They're young, hungry and playing with nothing to lose, which makes them especially dangerous. 

"We have a lot of respect for Montreal and their players that they have, the coaching staff that they have," Sullivan said. "This is a well-coached group and we're going to have to be at our very best."

Claude Julien has been behind the bench for Montreal since 2017 following nine seasons with the Boston Bruins, where he led them to the Stanley Cup in 2011 and won the Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach in 2009. Below is the lineup he will likely be going with for Game 1…

Tomas Tatar-Phillip Danault-Brendan Gallagher
Jonathan Drouin-Nick Suzuki-Joel Armia
Paul Byron -Jesperi Kotkaniemi-Artturi Lehkonen
Dale Weise-Max Domi-Jordan Weal

Ben Chiarot-Shea Weber
Brett Kulak-Jeff Petry
Xavier Ouellet-Victor Mete
Cale Fleury

There's a number of familiar names in that lineup, starting with captain Shea Weber. The veteran defenseman is coming off a tremendous season, his fourth with the club after spending the previous 11 years in Nashville. The NHL All-Star and perennial winner of the Hardest Shot competition scored 15 goals in just 65 games with the Canadiens, and is always a threat from the blue line with that booming slapper of his.

Montreal's top line may not have the name recognition, but they are a force in their own right. Danault is developing into one of the league's top two-way centers under the guidance of Julien. "He takes great pride in being good at both ends of the ice," Julien said of the 27-year-old. "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."

On Danault's left is Tatar, who started his career in Detroit before getting claimed by Vegas and then traded to Montreal, has had a career resurgence with the Canadiens. He has topped the 20-goal mark in both of his seasons with the Habs. On his right is Gallagher, who also topped the 20-goal mark this season and plays a feisty style perfect for the playoffs. 

Another player who tends to shine in the playoffs is Jonathan Drouin, who had a terrific series against the Penguins as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final. Overall, he has 10 goals in 20 career regular and postseason games against Pittsburgh. The 25-year-old started the season hot with 15 points (7G-8A) in the first 19 games before getting sidelined after undergoing surgery for a torn tendon in his wrist. He could absolutely be a difference-maker with his skill and quick-strike ability. 

Montreal will also have Max Domi for the playoffs, after the 25-year-old forward - who is a Type 1 diabetic and has Celiac disease - joined the team after taking some time to make the best decision for his health. Like Gallagher, he plays an abrasive style that should be well-suited for his first-ever postseason. Right now Domi - who had 17 goals this season after scoring 25 the year before - is centering the fourth line. For now, Julien hopes that he will be able to get more favorable matchups and generate offense accordingly. That goes for rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi as well, whose line was a bright spot in Tuesday's exhibition game against Toronto.

GOALTENDING MATCHUP

That all being said, Montreal's best and most important player is between the pipes. Carey Price has been the backbone of the franchise since the Canadiens drafted him fifth overall in 2005. He is widely considered to be the best goaltender in the league by his peers, and has earned a ton of respect from the players he faces on a nightly basis. 

They recently voted him Best Goaltender in the annual NHLPA Player Poll for the second straight year, and in 2015, they awarded him the Ted Lindsay Award as the NHL's most outstanding player as voted by the NHLPA. Price also earned the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and, of course, the Vezina Trophy as top goalie. In addition to those accolades, he has won Olympic gold and a World Cup with Team Canada, but never the Stanley Cup - which makes him more motivated than ever.

Price is someone that all three Penguins netminders look up to. Tristan Jarry would go watch him whenever the Canadiens came to Vancouver while growing up in British Columbia, while Casey DeSmith said he became a Habs fan because of Price. 

"He's been my favorite goalie for a long time, starting back when I was a kid," DeSmith said. "I've watched a lot of his game and he's just so smooth, he tracks the puck great, his positioning is phenomenal. He's kind of just got the whole package and he makes it look good on top of it. He's basically got a really well-rounded game. He's just really hard to beat."

The 32-year-old is coming off a regular season that isn't up to his usual standards, posting a 2.79 goals-against average and .909 save percentage - though that may have more to do with the Canadiens being in somewhat of a rebuilding process than Price himself. So with that being said, Price absolutely still has the ability to make a huge impact on the series - especially one that's only five games compared to the usual seven. 

But as Price told recently told reporters, he won't be able to defeat the Penguins on his own. When the Canadiens last made the playoffs in 2017, Price posted a 1.86 goals-against average and .933 save percentage - but were still defeated by the New York Rangers in six games in the First Round. 

"I can sway the odds with outstanding play, but at the end of the day, we'll all need to play over our heads to win," said Price, who had a 2.32 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and a 1-1-1 record versus Pittsburgh this year. "I just go out there and play my game, try not to do too much. We'll win and lose as a team, and it's always been like that." 

At the other end, Sullivan annouced the morning of Game 1 that Matt Murray would start in goal. 

Murray has the pedigree. At just 26 years old, he already has two Stanley Cup rings after backstopping the Penguins to back-to-back championships as a rookie. While his regular season had its ups and downs, as he posted a stellar 20-11-5 record with a not-so-stellar 2.87 goals-against average and .899 save percentage in 38 games - Murray tends to do his best work when the stage is biggest.

"Matt has obviously shown an ability to be at his best when the stakes are high, and that certainly should provide some confidence for him going into a playoff environment like this," Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, Tristan Jarry has yet to make his NHL playoff debut, but he is coming off an All-Star season. The 25-year-old set career highs in games played (33), wins (20), goals-against average (2.43), save percentage (.921) and shutouts (3). He finished in the top-10 among all NHL goaltenders in save percentage (T-8th), goals-against average (9th) and shutouts (T-8th). 

"We have a comfort level with the tandem we have right now," Sullivan said. "Both are really good goalies. And they're good people, first and foremost. They're two guys we feel comfortable with who are going to give us a chance to win."

But no matter who starts in goal for Game 1, rest assured that Sullivan will be closely monitoring the situation and making the appropriate adjustments if necessary. One of his biggest strengths as a coach is knowing which goalie gives them the best chance to win on every given night. He showed that during the team's back-to-back Stanley Cup runs with Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, and will no doubt do the same this year as well.

UNEXPECTED BUT WELCOME RETURN

When Jake Guentzel crashed violently into the boards after scoring his 20th goal of the season on Dec. 30 versus Ottawa, suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery and essentially ended his season, it was devastating. "It sucks," Bryan Rust said at the time. "It's a big blow to this team."

First and foremost, you felt terrible for the kid, as it was the first major injury of Guentzel's young NHL career. Up until that point, he had not missed a game since being called up to Pittsburgh on a permanent basis. During that time, Guentzel had quietly established himself as one of the most important members of Pittsburgh's roster and one of the elite players in the league. His presence has such a positive ripple effect on the Penguins lineup. 

Guentzel helped lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup as a rookie in 2017 playing alongside Sidney Crosby, and the two have been virtually inseparable ever since. But when Crosby was sidelined long-term after undergoing surgery to repair a core muscle injury, Guentzel seamlessly settled in alongside the Penguins' other generational talent. He had immediate and consistent chemistry with Evgeni Malkin, and proved he could score goals in bunches no matter who he plays with - an absolutely invaluable asset to have.

It was hard to imagine entering the playoffs without Guentzel, who does his best work on that stage. In fact, since making his NHL postseason debut in 2017, arguably no player has been a bigger scoring threat than Guentzel. His 24 goals during that span is tied with Alex Ovechkin for most in the NHL, with Ovechkin playing three more games than Guentzel's 41. And only one other player in the league has at least 20 playoff goals in that span (Logan Couture, 20). 

Fortunately, the Penguins won't have to worry about facing the Canadiens without Guentzel. The biggest silver lining of the NHL pause is that Guentzel got plenty of time to rehab from his shoulder surgery, which is an incredibly huge boost to this team. He's healthy and ready to go, reunited on a line with Crosby and Conor Sheary , and it's going to be awesome to see what Guentzel has in store.

"It's big. He's such a consistent player out there," Dumoulin said. "He has such a calming presence when he's on the ice. He can slow the play down, he can speed it up, he can score off the rush, he can score in front of the net. He's just a well-rounded hockey player. His hockey sense is off the charts. The guy just knows where to be and knows where to put the puck. He's a special player to watch and he's the type of guy that can go silent and then have two goals. He's a big player for us to have back and he's a great guy to have around the locker room.

 

DEEP, RESTED AND HEALTHY VETERAN GROUP

While the Canadiens have a young group, the Penguins have a veteran one. They are hoping their experience will be invaluable in uncertain times like these, where they don't know quite what to expect come Saturday. 

The core of the Penguins' leadership group is Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. Between the three of them, it feels like they have seen it all, from injuries to illnesses to winning and losing. At this point, nothing fazes them, and that's something that can have a trickle-down effect through the rest of the lineup.  

"These guys have been through a lot in their careers, and because of that, they have the benefit of perspective," Sullivan said. "And so I think it serves them well in these uncertain times like this. I know in the discussions that I've had with our guys, and in particular our leadership group, these guys look at what's in front of us as a great opportunity. And so they're trying to do everything within their power to make themselves ready and to prepare themselves for that opportunity because they also know how hard it is to win."

Adding a legend like Patrick Marleau to that leadership group is such a luxury for the Penguins. He's obviously someone who brings an incredible wealth of experience, as he has played 1,723 regular-season games and 191 playoff games over his 22-year NHL career. But he also brings the ability to make an impact on hockey games. Sullivan said that what has allowed Marleau to have such longevity is his fitness level, and it looks like the break has done the 40-year-old good as he was flying around during Phase 3.   

"I know our guys have so much respect for the career that he's had up to this point and the type of person that he is," Sullivan said. "Our coaching staff and management team does as well. That was another reason why we felt strongly that if we were able to acquire him, we thought he could help this group in so many different ways, both on the ice and off the ice. Everything I've seen up to this point has just been affirmation that what we felt he would bring to this team, has come to fruition. We're excited that he's on our team. Our guys are excited to have him. I think these guys would like nothing more than to see Patrick attain one more ultimate goal before he decided to hang up the skates at some point."

Marleau isn't the only Penguin who is hungry to win. They have other players who have been around the league for a while that are still searching for a Stanley Cup - like Jason Zucker and Brandon Tanev - and young players looking to make an impact, like standout rookie defenseman John Marino and 24-year-old forward Jared McCann. McCann is getting a huge opportunity to center the third line, one that tends to be important this time of year as Crosby and Malkin are tasked with tough matchups.

Overall, mentally the Penguins feel like they have an edge - Patric Hornqvist even said as much. And physically, a break like this could benefit Penguins more than other teams with them being an older group. It's going to be exciting to see what a fresh, healthy, rested and deep Penguins team is capable of. 

"The fact that we can have our team healthy, we really haven't had that luxury the whole year," Crosby said. "I think we're excited about that."

SPECIAL TEAMS

Montreal's power play did not fare well in their exhibition game on Tuesday, which was a trend all season for them. In their 4-2 loss to Toronto on Tuesday, not only did the Canadiens go 0-for-6 on the man-advantage - they surrendered two shorthanded goals. 

Montreal's top unit has Shea Weber on the point along with Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar. They definitely have the tools to be successful, starting with Weber's shooting ability. But if the Penguins are able to limit that, Weber has good options on the halfwalls with Drouin and Suzuki. 

Drouin is always a threat with his skill and scoring ability, while Suzuki is developing into an effective member of Montreal's power play. The rookie center may be just 20 years old, but he's a smart player with excellent vision, and 14 of his 41 points this season came on the man-advantage - which tied Tatar for the team lead. Gallagher rounds out that unit as the net-front presence. He's not a big guy at just 5-foot-9 and 184 pounds, but he'll still be a lot for the Penguins to handle with his aggressiveness and feistiness.

Meanwhile, the Penguins didn't fare much better on the power play in their exhibition game. They went 0-for-3 on the day and didn't generate much offense. But Sullivan and his power-play personnel aren't concerned, saying they have plenty of time to get better before Game 1 through practice and video sessions. The key for them is to simplify.

"We've got a ways to go to get it firing on all cylinders, but I think it will improve," Sullivan said. "I know these guys are proud guys. They want it to be successful. For me, the solutions are lying in simplifying the game. I don't think we moved the puck as quickly as we needed to. And I don't think we were shooting the puck when we had opportunities to put it on net."

The Penguins have been using a number of different looks on both units since Phase 3 began. Justin Schultz skated with the first unit alongside Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel and Hornqvist on Tuesday - but as Sullivan has said time and time again, he and Letang are interchangeable in that point spot.

Overall, it looks like the three mainstays of the top group are Crosby, Malkin and Guentzel and the coaching staff will move players around them depending on a number of different factors. They have a ton of fantastic options to round out that unit and fill up the next one, which is a testament to Pittsburgh's breadth of talent.

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