MONTREAL—Assuredly, the Montreal Canadiens have more than four questions to answer heading into a play-in series with a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was 15 points ahead of them in the Eastern Conference standings when the NHL season was paused due to COVID-19.
This is a Canadiens team that couldn’t overcome early season injuries to Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin going up against a Penguins team that managed to put together the league’s seventh-best record despite having only two players—Teddy Blueger and Marcus Pettersson—appear in all 69 games they played.
You could fill a book with the questions the Canadiens would have to answer in order for them to thrive in the NHL’s return-to-play model but, for the purposes of brevity, we’ve narrowed it down to these four:
1. Which Carey Price are we going to see?
This is the most pertinent question at the beginning of any new season and applies to this play-in round, too. Because even if we’re calling this a return to play and viewing it as the continuation of the 2019-20 season, the reality is that it’ll bear a closer resemblance to starting over.
So, we begin with this question because, when you look back over the past couple of seasons, the Carey Price we saw from December to March or April was vastly superior to the one we saw in October. If Price performs the way he has in the past two Novembers, Canadiens fans can stop worrying about the team’s draft lottery position being affected by the play-in round.
Price’s October play over the past two seasons has been passable—he posted a .915 save percentage in October of 2018 and a .914 in October of 2019—but that standard would certainly not be good enough to handle a Penguins arsenal that will be at full capacity if and when the puck drops later this summer.
The 32-year-old had absolutely brilliant stretches in December and January of the past two seasons, but that was after playing the worst hockey of his career in the month of November, where he posted an .886 save percentage in 10 games in 2018 and an .883 mark in 11 starts this past season.
If that’s the Price who shows up against Pittsburgh, the Canadiens won’t win a single game, let alone three of them.
One wild card: the Canadiens get the Carey Price who posted a .954 save percentage and a 1.50 goals-against average the last time he played competitive hockey in August and September—at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. That could take them farther than anyone assumes they’ll go.
2. Will Jonathan Drouin pick up where he left off in November?
There is no Canadiens player up front who can impact the game with his skill the way Jonathan Drouin can, and we got a full sample of that from Oct. 3 until Nov. 15 when he took an awkward fall and derailed his season with a wrist injury that required surgery and sidelined him for three months.
Drouin may have been sufficiently healed when he stepped back into the lineup on Feb. 8—in the thick of the playoff race—but he was anything but comfortable. Physically, he was clearly in a great deal of pain and that made it impossible to assert himself the way he did in the early part of the season.
An ankle sprain Drouin suffered shortly after his return from the wrist injury didn’t help.
But time heals all wounds, and the prospect of Drouin being the driving force of the speed game the Canadiens rely on is an enticing one. He was just that at the beginning of this season, scoring seven goals, adding eight assists and hounding the puck all over the ice in the first 19 games when the Canadiens were a winning team.
3. Who’s going to score the goals?
The problem is they play on the same line.
Sure, the games may be played in neutral territory if and when they return, but the Penguins would have all the same advantages of home-ice without actually playing at home and in front of fans. Meaning: they’d have the line matchup advantage for three of the five games and for two of the first three.
A problem Montreal faces against any team is that their top line can be matched and potentially neutralized, but it’s a particular problem against a Penguins team that might be considered the deepest in the entire playoff tournament.
So, can Max Domi pick up the slack and be more like the player who scored 28 goals in 2018-19 versus the one who only had 17 in 71 games this season? Can Nick Suzuki, Montreal’s promising rookie, bring his game up another level to thrive in situations where he’s likely to have to play against Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin? Can Drouin drive play and put the puck in the back of the net? Can Joel Armia, who had a breakout campaign, provide some much-needed scoring punch? Can Artturi Lehkonen finish his chances?
This was a Canadiens team that, according to naturalstattrick.com, generated the most shot attempts and second-most high-danger scoring chances in the league at 5-on-5. But they ranked only 13th in goals under those circumstances.
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4. Can the special teams come through?
This is the ultimate question, even if teams are traditionally afforded fewer power plays in the playoffs.
No team is going to be concerned about putting the Canadiens’ pop-gun power play to the test if it picks up where it left off when it scored on just five of 46 occasions from Feb. 1 to Mar. 11. It was a power play that not only cost the team a vital source of production; it also cost the Canadiens momentum on too many occasions.
The Canadiens truly have to hope a return-to-play looks like a fresh start — an not just on the power play, but on the penalty kill as well.
With the exception of a brief stint from Dec. 1-Feb. 1, when the Canadiens ran the fourth-best numbers in the league by successfully killing off 68 of 80 penalties, this might have been the team’s biggest weakness. They were 30th in the category from Oct. 1-Dec.1 and 20th from Feb. 1-March 11.
If that’s what the Canadiens get against Pittsburgh, they stand very little chance of winning.