By: KDKA-TV News Staff
TORONTO (KDKA) – Saturday night will mark 142 days since the NHL officially put the season on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic.
At 8:00 p.m. Saturday night, the Penguins and Montreal Canadiens will drop the puck on game one of the unprecedented Stanley Cup Playoffs that will take place in Toronto.
For the first time in history, 24 teams have qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, rather than the usual 16.
The NHL and NHLPA agreed on July 10 to a playoff format that includes a best-of-five qualifying round for teams seeded 5-12 and a round-robin tournament for the top four teams in each conference.
The Penguins are the “top” seed in the Eastern Conference qualifying round and will take on the bottom seeded Montreal Canadiens.
The Stanley Cup Qualifiers were seeded based on points percentage rather than points, as not all teams had played the same amount of games before the pause.
The Penguins sat third in the Metropolitan Division with a record of 40-23-6, good for 86 points.
Normally, this would’ve set up a matchup with the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round, had the NHL decided to implement a normal playoff.
However, since the Penguins finished with a points percentage of .623, fifth-best in the East, they’ll face Montreal.
Philadelphia, on the other hand, is part of the round-robin tournament as the fourth-best team in the East. The round-robin tournament will determine the top four seeds for the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Before we preview the upcoming series, let’s take a look back at this Penguins season before it was put on pause.
Evgeni Malkin: 25 goals, 49 assists, 74 points
Bryan Rust: 27 goals, 29 assists, 56 points
Sidney Crosby: 16 goals, 31 assists, 47 points
The Penguins, as usual, had a season plagued with injuries. Captain Sidney Crosby missed time for sport hernia surgery and Evgeni Malkin experienced bumps and bruises along the way.
Only two players played all 69 of the Penguins’ regular-season games: forward Teddy Blueger and defenseman Marcus Pettersson.
Most notably, winger Jake Guentzel would’ve been out until at least the Stanley Cup Final in June due to shoulder surgery.
Luckily for the Penguins, it’s August and he will be fully available for the tournament.
In goal, the Penguins saw time split between Matt Murray and 2020 all-star Tristan Jarry.
Both goaltenders posted 20 wins each.
Murray finished the regular season with one shutout, 2.87 goals-against average, and a save percentage of .899.
Jarry, meanwhile, had three shutouts, 2.43 goals-against average, and a save percentage of .921.
Head Coach Mike Sullivan has not named a starting goaltender for the series against Montreal.
Who Are You?
After 142 days, it’s often difficult to remember who is a Penguin, or on any team, for that matter.
The Penguins made a splash at the trade deadline picking up former San Jose Sharks captain Patrick Marleau.
The 40-year-old forward has done just about everything there is to do in the NHL other than win a Stanley Cup.
They also added former Penguin Conor Sheary in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres for Dominik Kahun.
Perhaps, one of the biggest moves of the season was sending Alex Galchenyuk to Minnesota along with prospect Calen Addison and a first-round pick in exchange for forward Jason Zucker.
In 15 games since he became a Penguin, Zucker scored six goals and added six assists, good for 12 points.
The NHL’s decision to expand the playoff format and include eight extra teams and a play-in round may not have benefitted a team more than the Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal, at the time of the pause, was sitting at 31-31-9 for 71 points and far from a playoff spot.
Now, with a points percentage of exactly .500, they just edge out the Buffalo Sabres for what amounts to the 24th and final playoff spot.
Offense was difficult to come by for the Canadiens this season, with no goal-scorer reaching the 25-goal mark.
Both forwards Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar topped the list with 22 goals each.
As expected, the Canadiens starting goalie was Carey Price. Price compiled a record of 27-25-0, four shutouts, 2.79 goals-against average, and a save percentage of .909.
During the 2019-20 regular season, the Penguins and Canadiens met three times, with the Penguins winning two of three.
While this may appear to be a mismatch on paper, the Penguins will still have to earn a victory against a Canadiens team that does not have much to lose, but everything to gain as a team that just barely qualified for the postseason.
Keys To Victory:
As expected, the Penguins forward group is about as deep as any in the playoffs. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin appear to be healthy and ready for the grind of another postseason and other help is on the way.
Getting Jake Guentzel back only makes that more prevalent for the black and gold.
Guentzel’s presence will push forwards such as Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau down the lineup. Zucker has scored at least 20 goals in a season four times in nine seasons, while Marleau has scored 30 or more in seven seasons, and 20 or more in eight seasons.
Add in forwards such as Patric Hornqvist, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, and Jared McCann, the Penguins have a dynamic offense.
Having forwards that can score on all four lines will prove valuable against a team with a strong goaltender in Carey Price.
It isn’t a quantifiable statistic or a strategy, but a mentality.
Most believe the X-factor in the series will be Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. That’s to be expected.
While he has seen declines over the past couple of years, Price still is a former Vezina winner and posted 48 shutouts in 13 NHL seasons. He is still widely considered one of the best goaltenders in the league.
For a team like the Penguins that likes to play a high-octane offensive game, it’s imperative they stick to their game plan and wait to solve Price rather than force the issue, causing mistakes.
This also applies strategically.
The Canadiens run a defensive scheme in the neutral zone that pressures teams into turnovers, leading to mismatches the other way.
If the Penguins try to get too fancy or creative rather than attacking with speed and puck control, this could prove costly.
The Masked Man
It’s no secret – Matt Murray has not been consistent or healthy the past couple of seasons since rocketing onto the scene in 2016 and winning two Stanley Cups.
However, what gets lost in the discussions of Murray’s regular season play, is that he is a rock-solid playoff performer.
Murray boasts a 28-19 record in postseason play, along with six shutouts, 2.16 goals-against average, and a career-playoff save percentage of .921.
His worst playoff came last season against the Islanders during a series where the Penguins looked lifeless, but he still managed a .906 save percentage.
If regular-season Matt Murray is inconsistent, playoff Matt Murray is reliable and quite good.
The Penguins will need that version of Murray against Montreal, assuming he starts.
Series Schedule: (All games played at Scotiabank Arena)
Game 1: Saturday, August 1, 8:00 p.m.
Game 2: Monday, August 3, 8:00 p.m.
Game 3: Wednesday, August 5, 8:00 p.m.
Game 4 (if necessary): Friday, August 7, Time TBD
Game 5 (if necessary): Saturday, August 8, Time TBD