And so begins a quest for the Stanley Cup like no other…
The NHL released the following statement on Monday afternoon:
This came on the back of the announcement that the Florida Marlins, of Major League Baseball, had around a dozen players and personnel test positive. The distinction here is that the NHL has been preparing for the better part of eight weeks for a two-city HUB. The plan is far from foolproof, however it is incredibly extensive.
For these series previews, I will be working with the assumption that all players are COVID-free and will remain so for the duration of the round. While we know some players have tested positive during the year, the specifics of which individuals is sometimes not disclosed.
The format for the playoffs will begin with a 16 team play-in. Eight teams in the East and eight in the West will play best-of-five series to determine which four in the respective conferences will meet the top four seeds. While those best-of-fives get underway, a round-robin will decide the order of the top four.
The part of the preparation I have struggled most with is which data and information is most critical to use for the circumstances. For this first round the quality could be closer to pre-season than post-season. Additionally the players on each and every team could see huge variety in form and conditioning coming in. Let’s breakdown the obvious differences first:
- Teams had a 120 day break between regular season and playoffs
- normally would be 1-3 days at most
- Three weeks training camp
- two to three weeks followed by a week of exhibition games after most pros already being on the ice or personal training sessions since a variety of dates in August
- Teams will be playing all games in a neutral environment but also be in the same vicinity as opponents
- in a regular season would feature two home games for the higher seed followed by two away games until alternating games 5/6/7
- normally visiting teams stay in a hotel and have no contact with opposition
- Qualifying round is best-of-five with playoff overtime rules, remaining four rounds will be best-of-seven
- the play-ins or qualifying round is only a feature this year
- Round-robin stage features the four teams playing three games each with regular season standings scoring in effect
- with no home ice, seeding is almost entirely irrelevant. Nothing quite says ‘this is not playoff hockey’ by playing 3v3 and then a shootout
- the presumption is that teams should be motivated by potentially playing a worse team if they attain a higher seed, but I am skeptical. My opinion is that it will be used far more as an exhibition in game-like conditions
- No crowd
- could help the nerves of some players, but also lower the intensity. This is one of those ‘create the narrative’ situations, still, we won’t know until the players actually comment on their experience with it and even then it will be subjective
- Rest vs rust
- I looked into each team and there is not a single one that would not benefit from the time needed for some of their players to recover. While some clubs had more important players to their ability to win out of the lineup, every team could benefit from the time off
- the contrary point is which teams had momentum, were in good form, were relatively healthy and playing better hockey in contrast to the field. Again there is no way to know whether this actually hurts anyone, but you can be sure that will be the tail that is spun
Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Montreal Canadiens
Saturday, August 01, 2020 – 01:00 PM EDT
I had both these teams going over their season point totals this year with the Habs at 88.5 and Pens at 95.5. Now they meet up as the 12 and 5 seeds in what the sportsbooks have deemed the greatest discrepancy in probability in all eight series of the qualifying stage. For anyone that may have followed my work during the season, you will already be aware of the betting relationship the Canadiens and I had. It was something out of those toxic relationship stories which Dr. Phil or, perhaps more honestly, Jerry Springer might feature. I had an entry this year called the 'Puck Play of the Day'...insert fire emote. Why fire? Well because you could say the Habs single-handedly torched what I was trying to do there. Ok, I'll stop being so dramatic.
The play of the day was setup as a hockey trade with a probability above 50% that held the greatest value for our NHL pick on either the moneyline, puckline, total or team total. Montreal was featured as the most value on the day seven times over the course of the season and lost every single one. In at least three of those they held two goal leads, and two of those they held 3-0 leads (fire). Overall backing the Habs it was not all doom and gloom, however considering I went 12-17 on their moneyline for about a 6unit loss and seven of those losses came when I projected there to be the most value is not easily forgettable.
The Pens were a profitable team this season for me. This was largely due to backing them when Jarry was in net, or Crosby was out or playing against one of the other contenders in the league or particularly the West which they crushed (20-7-2). Pittsburgh was classic Pens hockey – doesn't matter which star is out of the lineup we will find a way to win.
I mentioned in the season previews that in order for the Penguins to make it back to the playoffs they would need point per game performances from both Malkin and Sid, and the former could not repeat a -25 plus/minus. Well Geno undoubtedly delivered, tallying 74 points in 55 games and a +7 rating. When most people think of the Penguins generally they will have images of an offensive juggernaut. That was not them this year. They had respectable goal scoring, especially when you consider how many player games were lost due to injury. Of their players who scored at least 10 goals, only three played more than 60 games.
The Canadiens had some injury trouble on the front end as well, but not to the degree the Pens did. They employed much more of a score by committee strategy, while also throwing the second most shots on net of all 31 teams.
The Pens have far more experience in every part of the ice both in career numbers and playoff runs. I mean an argument could be made that no one is prepared for this situation, however I would counter by saying I think most bettors would rather have the likes of Malkin, Marleau, Hornqvist, Crosby, Letang leading the way through uncharted waters. It was announced that Crosby is a game-time decision for the exhibition against the Flyers. Whether that is something serious or as precautious as 'we just want him to have an extra day of rest', we don't know at this time. NHL coaches are infamous for disclosing next to nothing on the health status of the team.
Of the Canadiens team which last won a playoff series, in 2015, only three players are still with the club; Price, Gallagher, and Petry. They do have a few others who have seen the post-season, but it pales in comparison to the Pens squad. Where the Canadiens could excel is in having several lines creating more scoring chances than the Pens. That was a category they did find success in during the year.
I think I commented on the unforgivable nature of the Canadiens turnovers this season at least half a dozen times. It was a recurring theme in their losses. Poor breakouts or passes at the blue line that resulted in critical goals against. The other issue was the odd man rushes allowed. This is one particularly bad example where every single goal was created by the rush most in a 2v1:
Mistakes like this will happen to every team a plethora of times throughout a season, the Canadiens just seemed to be worse. When you see Carey Price trying to break his stick it's not because he thinks he is playing bad, its because his defense is leaving him hanging in five of six of them. Another point, and it may be obvious, this is the New Jersey Devils not the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The biggest question to the Pittsburgh backend is in net. A few seasons ago I made a comment that Jarry could be the better goalie than Murray. At the time it was a bit too early and foolish seeing as Murray went on to repeat a championship run for the Penguins. Yet this season is the first in which the far better numbers came from Tristan. I still think you have to go with Murray here given the length of time since the season and his two Cup rings, but the Pens have the dependability of a legitimate backup if needed. Word is that the exhibition game with the Flyers will see both goalies play half the game. This does not by any means imply that the starting job is up in the air however.
For a long time now the key to Montreal's success has rested with their star netminder, Price. However as this season can attest, it really does not matter how good he is if you throw a handful of 2v1's his way...the human body will react and contort in such a way to make miraculous saves only so many times.
Wrap It Up
While this is the shortest price in the qualifying stage, the avenues to victory for the Penguins are far more plentiful. Pittsburgh has proved time and again that removing a piece of their club, no matter how talented, is not enough to break them. Montreal brings a dynamic, youthful offense and a very talented goaltender to the series however it really is not enough. While a best-of-five and the conditions of this season could lead to an upset it isn't enough to shake me of calling the Pens 'value' even so.
The Penguins score more frequently on fewer attempts, and if you add the turnover troubles for the Habs to the mix this could be ugly. The pedigree, the experience, the talent, the depth, it all leans to the Pens favor and by a considerable degree. Unlike the other 'big' underdogs in this opening round I really struggled to find points of favor for Montreal other than 'they just find a way'. And while that may not seem like a very strong point, you might be surprised how often it seems to happen in a sport like hockey. That said this is a rare short favorite that I hold with value.