On August 1, the National Hockey League will return to playing games in Toronto and Edmonton. The top four teams in each conference will play for seeding while the fifth through twelfth place teams will be battling to get into the playoffs altogether. Those series are known as the Qualifying Round. The New Jersey Devils were worse than that at the time of the NHL Pause back in March. Therefore, they will not be returning to play. They did not even qualify for the Qualifying Round. While the New Jersey Devils are not involved in these games, there are plenty of reasons to pay attention to them all beyond just having any kind of professional hockey in North America (and literally being on all day for at least four days). Since there are eight weekdays until the start of the Qualifying Round and there are eight series, I will be giving you a Devils fan-centric rooting guide for each one.
This is the penultimate post in this series and it will wrap up the Eastern Conference matchups. It features a team that has been a constant contender out of the Metropolitan Division and a team that has the most expensive goaltender in the league. This is the series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens.
The Series Information
What you need to know about the series in general.
The Records: The Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 62.3% Point%, 5th in East) vs. the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 50% Point%, 12th in East)
The Pre-Pause Season Series: Between the three games they played between each other, Pittsburgh took it with a 2-1-0 record. Montreal went 1-1-1 so it was not like they were dominated. Links go to the Gamecenter page at NHL.com:
Game 1: December 10, 2019 - Canadiens 4, Penguins 1 in Pittsburgh
Game 2: January 4, 2020 - Penguins 3, Canadiens 2 (OT) in Montreal
Game 3: February 14, 2020 - Penguins 4, Canadiens 1 in Pittsburgh
Back in December, Tristan Jarry of the Penguins had a shutout streak going. He set a franchise record. Montreal ruined that with four unanswered goals from the second period onward to a 4-1 win. In the second game, Bryan Rust tied it up at 2-2 early in the third period. The fourth period favored Pittsburgh and Brandon Tanev finished a play from Teddy Blueger for the win. On Valentine’s Day, Jason Zucker became the main attraction at the Paint Can. In his second game with the team, he scored his first two goals. Sidney Crosby assisted on those plus a Kris Letang PPG that kicked off the scoring. That propelled a comfortable win for the Pens as well as the lead in the season series.
The Broadcast Schedule: From NHL.com:
Game 1: Canadiens versus Penguins, August 1, 8 PM ET - NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS
Game 2: Canadiens versus Penguins, August 3, 8 PM ET - NBCSN, SN, TVAS, ATTSN-PT
Game 3: Penguins versus Canadiens, August 5, 8 PM ET - NBCSN, SN, TVAS, ATTSN-PT
Game 4: Penguins versus Canadiens, August 7, TBD
Game 5: Canadiens versus Penguins, August 8, TBD
Note that local channels are carrying the games in this and in other series. This was not on the broadcast schedule at NHL.com until Thursday night, so please keep that in mind going forward.
The Penguins are a national television favorite and, fittingly, their first three games are in prime time. This should be a spirited series and so it makes sense that they have these time slots and national television coverage. I would think Game 4 and Game 5 will be similar pending results in other series.
A Quick Analysis: This may not be the gimmie for Pittsburgh it may seem at a difference. It is easy to discount Montreal. Had New Jersey earned just four additional points, then they would be in this spot instead of the Canadiens. Plus, Pittsburgh’s record was the seventh best in the entire NHL and not just fifth in the East. Let us not forget about Carey Price. He’s the fourth highest paid player in the entire NHL (#1 through #3 are Maple Leafs) and he posted up a not-at-all-worth-$15-million 91.4% save percentage at even strength and a more palatable 87.7% in shorthanded situations. The point is that short of punching a player in the head, he hasn’t been worrying about as a major threat. The team that still features the top-tier talents of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang would not worry much in the first place.
However, Montreal is like a knock-off Carolina. They are a well-structured squad in 5-on-5 and can absolutely control the play quite well. Per Natural Stat Trick, Montreal’s team percentages in the most common situation in hockey were awesome in 2019-20. They had the second best CF% in the league at 54.43% and led the entire league in shooting attempt rate with a CF/60 over 63.09. They had the second best SF% in the league at 53.44% with the league’s best shooting rate of 33.9 SF/60. They had second best SCF% in the league at 54.14% and the league’s fourth best chance rate of 28.98 SCF/60. They had the third best HDCF% in the league at 54.64% and the league’s third best high danger chance rate of 12 HDCF/60. This is a team that creates a lot of opportunities and denies plenty against them. As you would expect, the expected goals model yielded a xGF% of 54.01%, which is the second best in the league. (And if you’re wondering who is surpassing Montreal, it is often Las Vegas.) If Pittsburgh is not careful and play too loose, Montreal can and will make them pay in the run of play.
Unfortunately, like Carolina, Montreal falls short in other categories such that they are not as successful as one may expect. While the team surpassed their expected goals for rate in terms of actual goals (2.54 GF/60 versus 2.47 xGF/60), they have surpassed their expected goals against rate by a healthy margin. The model has Montreal at 2.1 xGF/60, their actual goals against rate was 2.45 GA/60. Why? Price has been OK (but certainly not worth $15 million) and the backups have largely not helped out. While Montreal’s team save percentage is not that low - and a little bit ahead of Pittsburgh - it undercuts the work in 5-on-5. If we dig a little deeper, Montreal’s goalies are similarly below league median in save percentages against scoring chances and high danger scoring chances.
This would be mitigated if Montreal scored more goals. While they beat the expected goals model, a GF/60 of 2.54 is not particularly impressive. Especially going into a series where the opposition put up a GF/60 of 2.7. Montreal’s skaters have not finished enough of the opportunities they have created. The team’s shooting percentage in 5-on-5 situations was just 7.49%, the seventh lowest such percentage in the league. In contrast, Pittsburgh has converted their shots at a rate of 8.41%, which was the eighth best in the NHL - and they maintained that top-ten shooting percentage on scoring chances. The Pens can make up for Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry combining for a team save percentage of 91.54%. (That’s mostly Murray’s fault.) Montreal has struggled to do that.
And special teams have further dulled the potential sharpness of a strong 5-on-5 team like Montreal. Their power play’s success rate was just 17.7%, with 33 goals out of 186 opportunities per NHL.com. The latter number is the telling one. Compared to other teams, Montreal was just not drawing a lot of calls. Not like Pittsburgh. While their power play success rate was a few percentage points better at 19.9%, they scored 42 out of 211 to do so. The Pens have and likely will continue to draw fouls. That can be a problem for Montreal. Their penalty kill allowed 45 goals out of 211 opportunities for a below league-median success rate of 78.9%. Pittsburgh’s PK is going. To put it another way, should Pittsburgh’s league-median PP can get on the ice several times, then Montreal is at risk of suffering. There is not that much risk in the opposite direction.
Lastly, Pittsburgh has superior talent and depth. Should Pittsburgh start Jarry in this series, then he is the best goalie in this series. Provided Kris Letang hits the ground running, he is the best defenseman in this series. The second best could very well be the emerging John Marino. At forward, as much as I really like what Philip Danault, Tomas Tatar, and Brendan Gallagher has done this season and I do think there’s a future growing with Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. However, Pittsburgh has and will likely continue to put Crosby and Malkin out on separate lines. Crosby will be riding with familiar linemates and threatening wingers he has great chemistry with: Jake Guentzel and Conor Sheary. Malkin will likely have Bryan Rust and Jason Zucker. I doubt Montreal can match that and keep them quiet. In short, Pittsburgh has the better forwards in this series too.
Going back to my Carolina comparison, Montreal being great in the run of play 5-on-5 has been undercut by not being great or even good in other aspects of the game. Their goaltending has been league-median at best. Their team shooting percentage was among the lower ones in the NHL. Their special teams have not had a lot of success. Their players fit their system but they do not have anyone to really match-up to the stars on Pittsburgh. The 2019-20 Canadiens were on track to be like the 2013-14 Devils, another team that was a total pain to play against in the run of play but fell short at a lot of other things such that they missed the playoffs. And also like many of the Carolina teams from this past decade. But the Return to Play format includes 24 teams and so Montreal has a lifeline here.
The problem is that they need things to turn around right away this weekend and in the coming week. Price needs to be better. The power play needs to be a more consistent threat. The penalty kill needs to shut down more opposition power plays. The team needs to finish more of the many chances they will create. They need to get into Pittsburgh’s head and cast some serious doubt in the first two games. Then their 5-on-5 ways can really wear them down. But this is a lot that has to go right and Pittsburgh is certainly not going to go down without a fight. They are too experienced and too familiar with dealing with tough series to fall flat in a week. This will not be an easy series for Pittsburgh. But that does not mean it will be any easier for Montreal to pull off the upset here.
The SB Nation Blogs: For anything Penguins related, then please visit PensBurgh, where Mike Darnay and Hooks Orpik have built on what Frank D did and holding it down for a while. For anything Canadiens related, then please visit Eyes on the Prize, where Justin Blades is in charge of the blog initially started by Robert L.
The Stakes at Hand for the Devils
We know these two teams are playing for a playoff spot. But what is in it for the Devils?
The stakes here are similar to the Edmonton-Chicago series. Montreal finished below Arizona in the standings. What this means is that Arizona’s first rounder could move up a spot as a result of what happens in this series. If Montreal loses, then they would need to win the lottery for the pick to move up a spot. If Montreal wins the series and Arizona does not win the lottery, then the pick will move up a spot. If Chicago also wins their series too, then it can move up two spots. That is the impact this series could have on the Devils, unlikely as it is.
The Second NHL Draft Lottery Possibilities
We know that Alexis Lafreniere will be the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. That pick is owned by one of the eight losing teams from this Qualifying Round. So there will be a second lottery to determine it. How should we react if the loser of this series wins this one?
The Penguins: Peeved would be a good word for my reaction. There is an argument to be made that Pittsburgh’s window as being a Cup contender is closing. It is not that they are going to go from the top floors to the basement right away. Just that Father Time will start doing its thing and the top players on Pittsburgh - Crosby, Malkin, and Letang - will not be as dominant as they once were and so the team will take some step backs. I will point out that the organization has done a great job finding complementary players and pulling off some good draft picks and deals to avoid a fate like what Chicago is going on. One way to keep that window a little more open is an 18-year old winger Alexis Lafreniere. As he gets older and presumably learns from Crosby and Malkin, he could be the cornerstone to continue Pittsburgh’s placing well in the Metropolitan. Which would serve to hurt the Devils’ cause for improvement.
The Canadiens: The reaction from Quebec would be something electric. Likely very memorable. For the first time since 1998 (Marc-Andre Fleury was not projected to go first in 2003), a French Canadian is set to go first overall. And the one franchise that prides itself for being French Canadian could take him. Were Montreal to win the second draft lottery, he would be an instant superstar. He would also receive an instant metric ton of pressure to be a superstar. Mostly by a media that will likely go to the mat to claim he is a star if there are any signs of that being true. Lafreniere could be exactly what Montreal needs from a roster and talent perspective. But a part of me wants to see him go almost anywhere else (read: not Arizona or New York) just so he can actually have a chance to develop, grow, and falter to prosper, and not be a star right away. For his own sake, I would like Montreal to not win the second draft lottery.
Pending Free Agents to Look For
The Devils have a lot of cap space, a full-time GM, and a new head coach. Maybe they will spend in free agency this Fall. These games could be a real showcase for those looking to hit the market. These are some of the more notable potential unrestricted free agents in this series.
The Penguins: According to CapFriendly, they have $13.2 million in projected cap space for next season. However, with a load of RFAs that all need new deals, I could see the Penguins letting their two pending UFAs walk. Both could serve some value for the Devils. The first is 28-year old winger Conor Sheary. Sheary’s time in Buffalo did not go well and it could be argued that without Crosby, Sheary is not that impactful of a player. Fine. But as a winger for a middle-six position, he could do a decent job. And the Devils could use wingers. They could also use an upgrade at defense. While he primarily plays on the right side, 30-year old Justin Schultz is someone worth considering. After a poor start to his NHL career in Edmonton where his name turned into a verb, he (and his coaches) sorted out his game in Pittsburgh and turned into a very fine player. I do not think many Devils fans would oppose the idea of Schultz in Newark, even though fitting him in would be a bit of a challenge. He will not come cheaply as he is coming off a $6 million salary in 2019-20 from a three-season deal worth $16.5 million. That said, those two names are names that could be targets in free agency. Patrick Marleau is also a pending UFA, but I doubt Marleau would want to come to New Jersey and I really do not think New Jersey should be interested in the 40-year old forward.
Pittsburgh could be interested in making a move or two to clear up space. That $13.2 million in projected cap space will not last considering they have eight pending RFAs. The two big ones is their goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry. Murray will likely seek some kind of raise over his $3.75 million salary from the last three seasons. Jarry will definitely get a big raise over his current league-minimum deal. Those two alone will cost a lot. The remainder would eat at the space bit by bit. I do not think Evan Rodrigues, Jared McCann, Anthony Angello, Sam Lafferty, Dominik Simon, and Juuso Riikola. Even if it is possible to do all that business with $13.2 million, it would not be ideal for the near future. The Penguins will need space for the following season for John Marino’s second contract as well. They may want to upgrade the team in other areas pending the results of this series too. I know dealing within the division is not always preferred, but it would not hurt Fitzgerald to kick the tires a bit.
The Canadiens: The pending free agents from Montreal are not that impressive. 31-year old Dale Wiese is not that good and would likely just take up space in the bottom six. Montreal does not play him a lot, so I do not know what value he would bring for the Devils to likely do the same. Defenseman Christian Folin might be good depth, but he plays on the right side and the Devils already have Connor Carrick, who is signed for next season, as an option for that post. Even if Folin is an upgrade, I do not think the 29-year old will provide a significant enough upgrade that the team should go out and get in free agency. That is pretty much it in terms of pending UFAs. Yes, Keith Kinkaid will also be hitting the market. But you will not see him in this series; he did not even get named to the team’s 30-man roster, which contains four goalies.
Montreal’s cap situation is solid enough that I do not think they would be prime for the Devils to leverage their cap space for a deal. According to CapFriendly, Montreal is projected to have about $18.3 million in cap space. The Canadiens’ pending RFAs are Max Domi, Victor Mete, Xavier Ouellet, and Charles Hudon. While Domi and Mete could command some big raises, the Canadiens should have plenty of cap space left over to be buyers in the free agent market.
My Choice & Your Turn
I think Pittsburgh has the better team. While it will not be an easy matchup and Montreal could prove to be better than their record and seeding would suggest, I think the Penguins have the edge. So I do not expect the Canadiens to move the Arizona pick up by one spot through winning their series. I do hope for Lafreniere’s sake that Montreal does not win the lottery. Although I will take that over Our Hated Rivals and Arizona if it comes to that.
However, that is how I see this matchup. I want to know what the People Who Matter think of this series; I want to know what you expect and hope for in this series. Please leave a comment as to how you see this series going down, who you would want to win and why, and who interests you within this series. Also, please vote in the poll just to answer who you think will win this series. The rooting guide series will conclude tomorrow evening with the Western Conference series with no stakes for the Devils: Winnipeg and Calgary. Thank you for reading.
Who will win between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens in this best of five series?
This poll is closed