When the NHL suspended operations along with most of the sports world in the middle of March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, things weren’t looking too great for the Montreal Canadiens.
They were 10 points back of a playoff spot with 11 games to go, and the teams they needed to catch had games in hand.
Winning out only would have gotten them to 93 points, which in addition to being extremely unlikely also probably wouldn’t have been enough anyway. They’d sold at the trade deadline. They were done.
However, if the 2019-20 season is ultimately able to resume, it turns out that the Canadiens will resume it in a much better spot than they were before the league closed its doors.
The NHL officially ended its regular season on Tuesday and announced its plan for a 24-team playoff format if they’re able to secure a safe and relatively practical way to play it. The Habs just made the cut, as the 12th seed in the East.
Which Eastern Conference series would you be most excited to see in the Qualifying Round?
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) May 26, 2020
While we still have no idea when or where it would be played, we know the plan is to have Montreal take on the fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in a best-of-five series.
It’s a matchup of the best team to have to play in the qualifying round against the lowest-ranked team to squeak in.
The Penguins are undoubtedly a formidable opponent. Their roster is loaded with talent, experience, and Stanley Cup rings. They have four players — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel — who scored at over a point-per-game clip this season.
However, there is reason to hope that the Habs are coming back to be more than just a warm up for the Penguins before the real playoffs start. In fact, we came up with six of them.
1. Carey Price scares the Penguins
There’s already talk that the Penguins aren’t too happy about the expanded playoff format allowing the Habs in and giving Carey Price the opportunity to steal a short series against them.
Penguins are so scared of Carey Price 😭😭😭😭 pic.twitter.com/0FJ1OP26QB
— Hanek (@HanekGoat) May 24, 2020
Now, in reality it’s been a few years since Price was really one of the very best goalies in the game. He only had a .909 save percentage this season. It seems clear that his peers around the NHL still view him as a potential game-changer, though, and goaltending may in fact be an area where Montreal has an edge in this series.
Matt Murray’s won two Stanley Cups for Pittsburgh, but he had a tough season, posting an .899 save percentage over 39 games. Tristan Jarry, on the other hand, posted an impressive .921 mark over 33 games, but doesn’t have any playoff experience or much of a body of work prior to this year. My guess is that the Pens would begin the series with Murray between the pipes but that he’d have a short leash.
It’s also fair to wonder if Price’s numbers would be better if the Habs had a capable backup goalie and could get him more rest. Price led the NHL with 58 starts this season. Well, by the time this series starts, he’ll have had plenty of rest.
2. Road power play
Whether it was Bell Centre ghosts or too many Habs fans yelling at them to shoot, Montreal’s power play was abysmal at home this season, clicking just 12.4% of the time. That was the worst home mark in the league.
On the road? It was a completely story. The Canadiens’ power play hummed along at a 24.7% clip, the third-best road mark in the league.
It was the opposite story in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins converted on 23.3% of their power plays at home, but just 15.8% on the road. Pittsburgh is one of the hub city locations being considered by the NHL, but the league is also considering having hub cities’ home teams play their games elsewhere so they aren’t perceived to have an advantage.
Wherever this series is played, we know it won’t be in Montreal. For some reason, that seems to be good news for the Habs’ power play.
The Stanley Cup playoffs already are often wildly random. No other league’s postseason is as difficult for people who like filling out brackets, in case you needed reminding of the Columbus Blue Jackets busting yours last year when they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the first round.
This year’s playoffs could very well be even more random. We have no idea how certain players and teams are going to react to the extended layoff, the empty rinks and the other bizarre circumstances that these games will be played in.
The Habs are not as good of a team as the Penguins are, but they also weren’t as good of a team as the Penguins were in 2010, when they rode a hot Jaroslav Halak — and perhaps an even hotter Mike Cammalleri — to a seven-game upset of the defending Stanley Cup champions in the second round.
In hockey, not being as good of a team doesn’t mean you can’t win. That could be especially true right now.
4. They might be better than you think
If the “Hey, you never know” argument above didn’t make you feel better, then consider this: Maybe the Canadiens deserved better results this season?
Sean Tierney over at @ChartingHockey has actually spent much of the season making that argument.
Play-in non-playoffs-but-not-regular-season-either matchups.
BY 5v5 xG, PIT & MTL enjoyed similar strong runs into January but MTL kept the pace up until season's end while PIT looked to be out of gas/injured.
If MTL gets any shooting luck, they're going to be a problem for PIT pic.twitter.com/MbsBo4XlzQ
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) May 26, 2020
Montreal was actually a pretty strong possession team this season. The 34.1 shots on goal per game the Habs averaged was the second highest mark in the league, and their 54.7% Corsi was the third best.
What killed them was that their 8.4% team shooting percentage was the sixth lowest. There was too little time left and they were too far behind for that to start evening out for them, but that’s not the case anymore.
5. Drouin X-factor
If you’re looking for an X-factor beyond Price in this series, look no further than Jonathan Drouin.
Early on this season, Drouin was playing his best hockey since coming to Montreal in 2017. He ripped off 15 points (7-8-15) in the first 17 games of the season, but then suffered a torn tendon in his wrist in a November 15 game against the Washington Capitals. After a near three-month absence, he returned to go pointless with a minus-10 rating in eight games before being sidelined again with an ankle injury.
Drouin clearly did not look 100% when he returned. Like Price, though, he also will have had lots of rest by the time this season resumes.
For all of the inconsistencies and frustrations that have unfortunately come to define Drouin’s tenure with the Habs so far, he still may be the most talented forward they have. If anyone on this year’s team is going to step up and be the kind of offensive game-breaker that Cammalleri was when he scored seven goals in seven games in that series against the Penguins 10 years ago, Drouin may be their best bet.
6. Nothing to lose
The Canadiens are playing with house money. They were dead in the water, then were gifted this opportunity through d̶i̶v̶i̶n̶e̶ ̶i̶n̶t̶e̶r̶v̶e̶n̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ an extraordinary set of circumstances.
The Penguins are a perennial contender that won two of the last four Stanley Cups and made deals for Jason Zucker and Patrick Marleau prior to the trade deadline. After getting swept out of the first round by the New York Islanders last year, they’re looking to bounce back and go on a deep run.
The Habs? They shouldn’t even be here. If it’s possible to play stress-free postseason hockey, this is as close as it gets. Fans gave up on the playoffs months ago and had begun looking forward to the draft lottery. Some claim to hope they lose this series so they can still be in it. Expectations could not possibly be lower.
Still, it would be rude to look a gift horse in the mouth.