Of all the teams in the play-in round, the Penguins have the most right to be angry. No, not because of Carey Price, but because they were all but assured a playoff spot in mid-March. Now they have to take on a Canadiens team that has been a regression-to-the-mean candidate all season long. This series has the chance to be a lot more competitive than it looks based on the standings: the Habs had a 3-13 record in one-goal games, and were below .500 in games in which they outshot their opponents. This is a deceptively adequate team, an analytical darling in the 2016-18 Hurricanes vein. But will it be enough? I’ll go through the two teams’ play-driving, offensive, and defensive stats before comparing their respective forwards, defencemen, and goaltenders. For information on the stats used, refer to this explainer article or visit EvolvingHockey and MoneyPuck.
This is where Montreal excels. They ranked 3rd in the league in expected goals for %, meaning that they generated the majority of quality chances. They were over 50% in every month in that category, and outplayed their opponents in that regard 70% of the time, second only to the Tampa Bay Lightning. The trouble for them, as we’ll see, came from finishing those chances, but they still finished above 50% in terms actual goals at 5v5. The Penguins were definitely no slouches either, finishing top 10 in xGF%, Goals, and GF-xGA and just outside of it in terms of Corsi and Quality Games. Some of their struggles can also be chalked up to a miserable February in which injuries to the team’s two best defensive defencemen and some questionable deployment decisions caused the team’s play to plummet. A healthy Penguins team should be able to outperform its overall season metrics. Winner: Montreal
Pittsburgh and Montreal are both strong offensive teams, but they generate it in different ways. As mentioned above, the Habs are an excellent possession team who generated quality scoring chances at the 3rd highest rate in the league. However, their awful shooting (part bad luck, part lack of finishing talent) left them a below-average team in terms of actual goalscoring. The Penguins were the opposite; relatively poor at driving offence but excellent at finishing it. This edge will only grow with a healthy Penguins lineup featuring a Crosby, Guentzel, Malkin, Zucker, and Rust together for the first time. The Pens are also a significantly better team on the powerplay despite missing top talent all season. If the Habs can get the scoring luck to tilt in their favour it will be interesting, but it’s hard not to pick Pittsburgh here. Winner: Pittsburgh
This is another complicated matchup. The Penguins were a very strong defensive team for the majority of the season, 3rd best in the league in terms of preventing expected goals up until February 1st. In February, with Marino & Dumoulin out and Jack Johnson & Letang forming the worst top pair of the Crosby era, they ranked 26th. While things got a little better in March, they were still below-average. Meanwhile, while the Habs haven’t been as consistently dominant as the Penguins were for the first four months, they were only below-average in one month, January, and have the clear advantage in the last two months of the season. Once again, the Penguins’ special teams prevail, as the Canadiens ran a very poor penalty kill. Things are so tight at even strength that the PK is the deciding factor here. Winner: Pittsburgh
The forwards are something of a mismatch. The Canadiens’ first line was one of the strongest even strength units in the entire league this season, clicking at an incredible 60% xGF% and 58% GF% despite the lack of individual star power. It’s hard to bet against Crosby, but he wasn’t his best this year - even after his February return. If he can regain his 2018-19 form he could singlehandedly tilt that scale. The Pens also have the shooting talent edge in that matchup, as they do across the lineup.
After the top lines, it’s all Pittsburgh. Guentzel - Malkin - Rust was utterly dominant, with Malkin playing his best hockey in years and the two wingers breaking out as top tier players in their own right. Meanwhile, Jonathan Drouin is a liability at left wing on that second line, extremely poor defensively and ineffective at contributing to offence, and Domi’s exceptional playmaking is ultimately wasted without a great finisher to pass to. 3rd line Habs centre Nick Suzuki’s remarkable defensive play provides the Canadiens with their only bottom-nine advantage. Finally, Aston-Reese - Blueger - Tanev was the best defensive forward line in the entire league this year, even when deployed in elevated minutes due to injuries. Compared to Montreal’s miserable fourth line, it’s not even close.
With no insult meant to them personally, injuries to Dominik Simon and Nick Bjugstad have cleared the way for the Penguins to deploy the league’s 3rd best forward unit. Montreal can only lean on their top line so hard. Winner: Pittsburgh
The defensive matchup is very interesting. Both teams have a high paid franchise defenceman (Kris Letang vs. Shea Weber) and a 2nd pairing right defenceman who some would argue is actually the best on his team (John Marino vs. Jeff Petry). The Pens have the stronger top pairing, in part because while Chiarot did improve quite a bit this year compared to his time in Winnipeg he is not at Dumoulin’s level.
Things get tighter further down the lineup. John Marino was a revelation for the Penguins this year, immediately emerging as one of the league’s best defensive defencemen as a 22 year old; however, his offence is not quite there yet. Pettersson, on the other hand, is fine but nothing that special on the left side. Meanwhile, Petry has been a very strong play-driver for years and is paired with the very underrated Brett Kulak. Finally, the third pair matchup isn’t even close. Jack Johnson was one of the worst defencemen in the NHL this season, and Justin Schultz was merely replacement level. As a pair, they have consistently made fools of themselves, including in the first round against the Islanders last season. Mete alone is much better than both players. Montreal’s depth at the position (and lack of Jack Johnson) makes this fairly easy. Winner: Montreal
Is it ridiculous that fear of playing against Carey Price was apparently a factor in the NHL’s decision-making process for the new play-in format? Yes. Price at this point in his career is a below-average starting goalie, underwhelming at 5v5 despite solid shorthanded performance and good rebound control. The ceiling that many NHL players clearly assume he has hasn’t been hit since 2017, and he hasn’t been the league’s best in five years.
Fortunately for the Habs, Matt Murray was terrible this year, and it seems as though he’s going to be the starter (having played 11 out of the team’s final 18 games). His overall body of work ranks second-last in the league (agreed upon by all three public GSAx models), as did his even strength performance. Like Price, he’s in the ~10 range in terms of penalty killing and he’s always been good at preventing rebounds, but as I covered extensively here, he is extremely inconsistent and this year was one of his down years.
What makes this goalie matchup more interesting are the month-by-month numbers. These two actually had very similar seasons. The only real difference between their timelines is that Matt Murray remained bad in December and peaked lower in January; aside from that they are very difficult to tell apart. Based on those trajectories, neither team should be overly confident in their goaltending; however, Price has the edge. Winner: Montreal
Strictly in terms of the six categories I chose above, these two teams are even. There is a clear path for Montreal to win this series: by playing an overwhelming possession game, exposing the Penguins’ shallow defence, and lighting up Matt Murray. It’s not remotely out of the question - if there ever was a “regressing to the mean” team, it’d be the Habs. But I still have to favour a healthy Penguins team here. So many of the team’s stats were affected by key injuries: the loss of Crosby and Guentzel hurting the powerplay and scoring, the loss of Dumoulin and Marino devastating the team defence in February, the loss of Aston-Reese disrupting the best defensive line in the league in the last 12 games of the season. There are major question marks around both of these teams, whether it be special teams and finishing for the Canadiens or goaltending for the Penguins, but this is still Pittsburgh’s series to lose. Prediction: Penguins in 4.