What better way to finish off the Qualification Round preview than with my hometown Montreal Canadiens vs Sid and the Pens. Even if I littered this entire analysis with self-serving homerism, the Penguins still win. Before we get into the analysis for this final series, here are the links for the previous seven break downs for your reading pleasure.
(12) Chicago Blackhawks vs (5) Edmonton Oilers
(11) New York Rangers vs (6) Carolina Hurricanes + Top 4’s
(11) Arizona Coyotes vs (6) Nashville Predators
(10) Florida Panthers vs (7) New York Islanders
(10) Minnesota Wild vs (7) Vancouver Canucks
(9) Winnipeg Jets vs (8) Calgary Flames
(9) Blue Jackets vs (8) Maple Leafs
Before the season and life in general went to shit with the pandemic, the Habs went full seller mode. Well maybe not full seller depending who you ask because Price and Weber are still on the roster (these people need to shut up) but Montreal did lose a couple valuable pieces. The top line of Danault, Gallagher and Tuna are probably the only constant from this group. Nick Suzuki had a monstrous first season and put himself in the Calder conversation for a period of time when he was playing with Kovy. Domi had a down year but he is still a core player for us and Drouin and Byron are both healthy and back in the lineup. The Habs trio of Fins are all defensively responsible players but Armia and to an extent Kotkaniemi have some high offensive upside.
The Pens have been blessed with one of the best 1-2 punches at center the NHL has ever seen. Sid and Gino have been the only constants in this lineup since they both joined the team and the Pens flow through wingers, typically trading them away. That is until they find linemates that work within the cap like Jake Guentzel, Conner Sheary, Patrick Hornqvist or Bryan Rust. In classic Pittsburgh fashion the Pens picked up a couple of high profile deadline acquisitions in Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau.
No amount of homerism could possibly make me take the Habs forward group of Sid, Gino and associates. Especially if Domi is on the fourth line.
Montreal’s top three defenseman can compete with the best in the league, not saying they are the best but they can put up a fight. Weber or Man Mountain as the player’s like to call him, is one of the toughest players to play against in the league and a natural born leader. I am repeating myself here but Petry is criminally underrated and when Weber was out with an injury he stepped up huge to fill that void. Ben Chiarot was, to put it simply, a steal and may have saved our defense core this year. Mete is an established youngster on the blue line to go along with Cale Fleury and Noah Juulsen.
Kris Letang managed to remain relatively healthy all season and provides a gigantic offensive boost from the back end for this team. The Penguins have so much firepower up front that they tend to build the defense with two-way, stay at home or shut down defenseman. Guys like Dumoulin, Pettersson, Schultz and former first overall pick Jack Johnson all play a simple yet effective game that makes Pittsburgh such a well rounded team.
Despite Montreal being top heavy, Pittsburgh is the more complete defensive group from top to bottom.
I don’t think Carey’s career needs to be explained as it pretty much speaks for itself. Drafted fifth overall, Carey has more than lived up to expectations and is widely considered the best goalie in the league by his peers. Despite a three to five year period where Carey legitimately carried this team, his absolute prime years are behind him for sure. Does that mean his play is on the decline, technically sure but no one is better in nets than Carey when he is on. He is the most used goalie year after year and Habs fans wonder why he goes through stretches where he looks tired.
I hate how Pittsburgh seems to keep finding a back up goalie that forces the starter out of town, coincidentally right before expansion drafts. Murray had the worst season of his career finishing the season with a Save Percentage below 0.900. Tristan Jarry took full advantage of his opportunity playing close to half of the Penguins games this season, putting up much better numbers than Murray. One of these two are bound to be the hot hand in the playoffs and Mike Johnson has shown in the past that he is not afraid to pull a goalie or rotate starters in the playoffs.
I don’t care what the numbers say, advantage Carey
If you read my Habs vs Leafs exhibition game preview, the first thing I mentioned was the Habs revamped Power Play. The players may have shuffled around but the outcome was still the same, 0 for 6 and the Canadiens gave up two short handed goals in the process. Montreal desperately needs to find a way to enter the zone with possession and establish a set up in the offensive zone because the turnovers were almost predictable by the end. I will say that Suzuki was probably the lone bright spot, watching him control the Power Play from the half boards was very encouraging. The Habs Penalty Kill was roughly middle of the pack
The silver lining is that the Penguins Power Play didn’t exactly light the world on fire and on paper looks very close to the Canadiens. However when you take into account how much time Sid and Gino missed on the season it starts to make more sense. Montreal cannot let Crosby or Malkin get going at all on the Power Play and Carey will need to be the best player on the ice to have a chance.
On the Penalty Kill the Penguins gave up eleven fewer goals when down a man than the Canadiens, placing them in the top ten in the league compared to Montreal’s 19th place finish. Montreal took penalties at a far greater rate than the Pens did during the season which they will need to get in check because giving the Penguins any additional room on the ice is asking for trouble
Montreal Canadiens: Paul Byron
There are few possible candidates here, most notably Carey Price who will need to stand on his head for the Habs to win. Ignoring the obvious, Paul ‘Breakaway’ Byron is a player whose injury may have been the first domino to fall on the Habs season. Byron went down with a knee injury in mid-November, the same game as Drouin which is why his value to the team was overshadowed. The Canadies were 11-5-3 at the time, then proceeded to go 16-21-5 without him. If we go back to last season we see a similar trend as the Habs went 33-19-4 with him in the line up and 11-11-4 without him. Quick math in just seven more games with Byron in the line up, the Canadiens have 17 more wins…..
Pittsburgh Penguins: John Marino
The Harvard product came over to the Pens from the Oilers for a sixth round pick, which on the surface is an absolute steal. However if we have learned anything from Adam Fox, it’s better to get something for a NCAA prospect who is going to become a Free Agent anyways. Marino’s numbers do not jump off the board, but in his first season he provided an offensive spark the team has only ever gotten from Letang on the back end. Not that this team is desperate for secondary scoring but it would help immensely, especially coming from a position where the team expects zero offensive contribution.
Forward – Penguins
Defence – Penguins
Goaltender – Montreal
Special Teams – Penguins
X-Factor – Penguins
Winner: Habs in 3! Ça sent la coupe! Start planning the parade!
Winner: (5) Pittsburgh in 4
I will allow my homerism to give the Habs one game but the Penguins will move on to face the Capitals if my predictions are correct
Speaking of the next round here is a quick look at the First Round of the playoffs based on all of my predictions
(1) Tampa Bay Lightning vs (11) New York Rangers
(2) Boston Bruins vs (8) Toronto Maple Leafs
(3) Philadelphia Flyers vs (7) New York Islanders
(4) Washington Capitals vs (5) Pittsburgh Penguins
(1) Colorado Avalanche vs (8) Calgary Flames
(2) St Louis Blues vs (7) Vancouver Canucks
(3) Vegas Golden Knights vs (6) Nashville Predators
(4) Dallas Stars vs (5) Edmonton Oilers
Stanley Cup Final: Lightning defeat Blues in 7
Not many upsets in the Qualification Round, most teams at the bottom have established themselves as sellers except for the Rangers.
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