A matchup between the Penguins, who are one of the most successful teams in recent years against the Canadiens, who are the most successful team in history. In terms of the current team’s stature, there is a clear favourite here as Crosby and Malkin look to add a fourth Cup to their incredible legacy. On the other side, the diehard Canadiens fans have formed a generation that has only ever heard about, but never experienced the legendary success that once was in Montréal.
Coaching and Style
Mike Sullivan and Claude Julien are some decorated coaches with three Stanley Cups between them. Sullivan didn’t get a nomination for the Adams this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was close. He showed an incredible ability to get results with an injury-depleted roster and it wasn’t surprising. He was my pre-season pick for the Adams as he creates a system that effectively tilts the ice, especially locking things up on defence, and it worked for years. The Penguins will likely play on the cycle, with an effective forecheck and some dynamic passing across the zone.
Claude Julien has also been known as a defensive tactician throughout his career but does it in a much different way. He uses this Montréal roster to play a high event speed game that encourages players to drive to the slot and get one off dangerous shots from there. This team uniquely uses the forwards to build-up play from deep but the sitting back leads to a lack of sustained zone time.
The Canadiens will obviously be starting Carey Price. Everyone knows the aura around Carey Price. Players have voted him the best goalie in the league for the last three years and he’s won the Olympic Gold medal, the World Cup of Hockey, the Hart Trophy, the Ted Lindsey and the Vezina. He’s decorated and he has indeed been great over the decade, but there’s only been that one season in 2015 when he was truly the best. This season is just last the last few, he’s been good but not great. However, despite the only above-average numbers, goalie experts and players alike call him the best and that’s because he truly does have the ability to turn it on under pressure, give confidence to his team and intimidate the opposition, all vital qualities this time of year.
The Penguins have a very different situation in net. Matt Murray has proven himself with two Stanley Cup wins already in his young career but it won’t be as straight forward for Sullivan to simply trust him. His numbers this year haven’t been great and he’s actually been the hole in the great Penguins system. Trust me, it isn’t great for the hole to be in net. Their other option, Tristian Jarry, has been the complete opposite. He’s been a great force to rely on for the Penguins leading him to win the coach’s confidence and almost split time with Murray. I think Sullivan should be giving Jarry the nod going forward. Jarry did have a greater positive impact than Price this year, but given the importance of Price to the entire Montréal organization, I’ll have to give him the edge in net.
Montréal’s defence is actually quite good. The captain, Shea Weber is getting older but he still excels at defending the rush and uses his canon of a shot to great effect. Who Julien will pair with him is going to be an interesting question. I think youngster Victor Mete should be the guy. His defensive coverage, along with passing and skating ability complement Weber’s skill set very well. However, the pairing who played the most for the Canadiens was Weber alongside of Chiarot so whether Julien actually uses Mete here will be interesting. Pittsburgh likes to attack off the cycle. Their effective forecheck and passing could be a problem for Montréal as the Habs play in their own end isn’t the greatest and that’s exactly where Pittsburgh are going to put them. Jeff Petry’s role in this defence will become huge. His ability to read play, and combine it with his tangible defensive tools, good passing and shooting make him an extremely well-rounded player. His attributes are in the mould of Kris Letang, so a matchup between them is going to be fascinating.
The Penguins, of course, are highlighted by Kris Letang. The three-time Stanley Cup Champion is a great player who’s complete skill set allows him to be very versatile and used in many roles. Past Letang, who’s hopefully going to be the main guy on the ice, the key for the Penguins will be to take away Montéal’s transition game. This will make rookie John Marino very important as he’s shown to already be one of the steadiest defensemen in the league. He’s great against the rush and very reliable in the zone. He’s also got the passing to move the puck up and cause lots of problems for the Habs. The rest of the Penguins game will rely on forcing the Habs into their own zone so having defensemen who support this attacking play is key. This is where Schultz and to a lesser extent Pettersson come into play. They can act as great quarterbacks from the point supporting the cycle.
Both teams have many effective defensive pieces but I beleive the Penguins defense are better suited to beat Montréal’s style.
The Habs forward group is key to their build-up style. It’s an unusual approach but nearly every Habs forward excels in starting breakout, stretch passes and attacking in transition. This all begins from the base with Phillip Danault. Danault is a smart player that covers very well and has an excellent passing range. He connects perfectly with high volume shooter and master of the other end of the ice, Brendan Gallagher. Add swift transitional player, Thomas Tatar to keep up and add some creativity and you’ve got a great line. Julien will hope to match them against some of the weaker Penguins defensemen like Jack Johnson so they can get lots of chances. The Habs ability to attack in transition doesn’t end after the top line though. Joel Armia leads all forwards in build-up ability and Max Domi and Nick Suzuki are extremely creative players. Within his second-line role, Domi has been exceptional and the Penguins better by ready to take him on while Suzuki has been very effective and excels within the smaller details of the game. If he finds consistent finishing, the Habs will have a strong group with multiple weapons. There are still problems here as if the transition gets blocked, the lack of sustained pressure hampers Montréal’s offence.
Pittsburgh has a very different approach to attacking. Meshing well with their cycle supporting defence, the Penguins forecheck well and run the cycle to great effect. The forecheck is important to prevent the Habs transition and adding Jason Zucker helps them fulfil this perfectly. Zucker was one of the most effective forecheckers with the Wild and he’s continued to excel in this area in Pittsburgh. Add his puck winning to Crosby’s dynamic ability and Price will be in danger. It’s no secret that Crosby is excellent and his partner in crime, Malkin, sits at the top of the league’s passers alongside him. They have these great passers and forecheckers throughout the lineup which Montréal isn’t built to play against. Rust and Hornqvist add a scoring touch too to convert the chances. While the Penguins are built to wear down the Habs and create chances – Zach Aston-Reece, Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger are excellent shutdown players that can prevent the transition the other way.
Just like in the defensive matchup, both teams have an abundance of options but once again, it seems as though the Penguins are better suited to shut down and beat the Canadiens.
Key Factors and Final Thoughts
These teams are closer than many make it seem. Montréal’s abundance of quality in their forward and defence groups is often overlooked and they seriously have the ability to take on the Penguins. That being said, the Penguins match up slightly better, have the major star power and are deservedly the favourites to move on in the series.