The No. 4 seed Pittsburgh Penguins and the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens begin their Eastern Conference semifinal series Friday night in Pittsburgh. Here are 10 items for your consideration about this match-up:
Penguins forward Chris Kunitz will play in Game 1 as announced Friday morning to the media, but Tyler Kennedy (lower body injury) and Jordan Leopold (concussion) will watch from the Mellon Arena press box. Montreal defenseman Jaroslav Spacek is still day-to-day with an illness meaning more P.K. Subban on the blue line.
As we see every year in the playoffs, the later it is, the more important depth in a lineup becomes.
9. How'd they'd get here?
The Penguins came very close to being in a Game 7 with the Ottawa Senators in the first round until Pascal Dupuis's overtime winner clinched the series in Game 6. Ottawa's third line haunted Pittsburgh the entire series, but Sidney Crosby's 14-point effort over the six games was enough to carry them out of the first round.
Everyone knows about Montreal's upset of the No. 1-seeded Washington Capitals. On the back of Jaroslav Halak, the Canadiens came back from a 3-1 deficit to advance. Timely goal scoring and defensemen sacrificing their bodies helped spur the comeback.
8. Killing it off.
One of the biggest statistical differences through Round 1 is the success of the penalty kills. Montreal did a wonderful job at frustrating the Washington power play and allowed just one goal on 33 opportunities, good for a 97 percent success rate.
Pittsburgh struggled going 7-for-28 (68.2-percent). The Penguins power play has the talent to be dominating, but hasn't this season. They'll need to capitalize on some early opportunities before it becomes a focal point of the series.
7. Taking one for the team.
Montreal led all teams with 182 blocked shots in the first round with Hal Gill (31) and Josh Gorges (20) with the most on the Canadiens. The second-highest total was 129 by the Ottawa Senators, who were able to frustrate Pittsburgh at times thanks to the skills of Anton Volchenkov. Having offensive-minded snipers from the blue line like Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, Pittsburgh will need to find a way to earn some dirty goals if Montreal continues their success at committing to the blocked shot.
6. Wearing down physically.
The average size between the teams is similar. Montreal averages 6-1, 205 lbs. to Pittsburgh's 6-2, 203 lbs. Yet, the use of their sizes goes in different directions. The Canadiens use it to their advantage in the shot-blocking department, while the Penguins aren't shy about dishing out hits.
Currently leading all remaining playoff teams with 253 hits to Montreal's 143, the Penguins' physical play is a key for them in slowing down the Canadiens' smaller, fast forwards.
5. Worse song about team's goalie?
This ballad about looking like Marc-Andre Fleury is a nice, little ditty...
...but it doesn't induce the ear bleeding that the Jaroslav Halak "Habs Romance" tribute does:
4. Spreading the wealth.
Having the weapons to score has never been a problem for the Pittsburgh Penguins. "Wave 1" features Sidney Crosby and if Montreal can shut down his line, then they'll have to face "Wave 2" with Evgeni Malkin. It will be a tough task for the Canadiens as they will constantly be under fire from the Penguins offense.
For Montreal, the scoring depth isn't there like it will be for Pittsburgh, so there will be a dire need for the likes of Mike Cammalleri, Tomas Plekanec and Scott Gomez among others to step up the offense.
3. The hot goalie.
It seems like buying a southern NHL franchise and moving it to Canada is easier than scoring on Jaroslav Halak right now. Brilliant in the series against Washington, Halak will once again be relied upon to lead the Canadiens and shut down Pittsburgh's offense. Every year there's typically one goaltender that carries his team for a playoff right and right now Halak is currently holding that title.
Halak cannot take a step backwards in this series; the Canadiens can't afford it.
A year ago, Evgeni Malkin's parents became celebrities for their enthusiastic celebrations after a Penguins' goal. The television cameras were fixed on them as they jumped around in their seats and celebrated with the fans around them. This week, the Malkins returned to Pittsburgh, though surprisingly without police escort or parade, and you can bet there's already a VERSUS cameraman assigned to covering each and every one of their gesticulations.
1. The Prediction. Penguins in 6.
The fact that the Canadiens stay in their routine and do not have multiple days off like Pittsburgh does is of benefit to them. Their confidence is still high and Halak hasn't had time to cool off.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Montreal steal Game 1, but relying on Halak to perform his magic for two straight series is dangerous. The Canadiens were able to shut down the Washington Capitals offense, but will their defense block as many shots and quiet Crosby and Malkin over seven games again?
Friday, April 30, 7 p.m.: Montreal at Pittsburgh CBC, RDS, VERSUS**
Sunday, May 2, 2 p.m.: Montreal at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, RDS
Tuesday, May 4, 7 p.m.: Pittsburgh at Montreal CBC, RDS, VERSUS
Thursday, May 6, 7 p.m.: Pittsburgh at Montreal CBC, RDS, VERSUS**
Saturday, May 8, 7 p.m.*: Montreal at Pittsburgh CBC, RDS, VERSUS**
Monday, May 10, 7 p.m.*: Pittsburgh at Montreal CBC, RDS, VERSUS
Wednesday, May 12, TBD*: Montreal at Pittsburgh CBC, RDS, VERSUS
* if necessary ** VERSUS exclusive
- Jaroslav Halak
- The Penguins