The winner of Game 1 of a best-of-five NHL series historically goes on to win the series 81 per cent of the time. Already, the math is very much in favour of the Montreal Canadiens to pull off a giant upset against the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, when the winner of Game 1 also takes Game 2, that series winning percentage rises to 98 percent. Whether it be 81 per cent or 98 at night’s end, the Canadiens have already made believers out of many in the hockey world.
It was another low-scoring affair with the Penguins winning 3-1 to even the series. It’s now a best-of-three.
- Your best penalty killer is your goaltender. For the second straight game, the Penguins got a five-on-three power play and for the second straight time, the Canadiens held the fort. Pittsburgh got 14 shots on five opportunities with the extra man, but Carey Price was outstanding. Price has come fully prepared here. The Penguins weren’t happy with the best-of-five series format because they were worried about the ability for a hot goalie to steal a series knowing they’d be playing the Canadiens. Their worry was founded. Price is doing his best to steal this. The shots on goal through two periods were 29-13 for Pittsburgh, but when the score is 1-0, you have to be extremely worried that one bounce the wrong way and suddenly you are all but out of the NHL playoffs because one guy was simply too much for you. Hockey is a unique sport. It’s often been said that you could call hockey “goalie” instead, because one man can be the entire story in this sport. There’s a way to go here, but that one guy, Carey Price, seems interested in stealing this. He’ll need some help because you do need to have at least a ‘one’ total on your side of the scoreboard, but one goal shouldn’t be too hard, should it?
- It’s difficult to evaluate Canadiens coach Claude Julien‘s work here in this series. Montreal took two too-many-men-on-the-ice penalties. That’s a negative. He used Dale Weise with seven minutes left needing a goal desperately. That’s a negative. But from a positive point of view, the Penguins are the fifth-ranked team in the East and the Habs the 24th-ranked in the NHL. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — two of the best centres in the game — and the Habs are staying close against a vastly superior team. That happens because of good preparation. There were many shots by the Penguins, but the bottom line is this was low-event hockey. When you’re second-best by a large margin in talent, the coach’s job is to make sure that it is low-event hockey. The longer the score stays low and the game stays dull, the better job he has done putting his players in a winning position. Julien is good at dull. That is why he exasperates so many fans who want to see their heroes let loose to show what they got. But they got less than the Penguins, so Julien needs to make sure the game has very little flow. That’s his job. So far, he’s doing it well. The Habs are tied in the series, and the Penguins only have four goals with Price in net in two games. That’s a great script so far. Let’s see how it plays out the rest of the way because if, in the next potentially three games, Pittsburgh is still getting only two goals per against Price, this could still get very interesting.
- The Habs are going to need more from Jonathan Drouin. Here’s the thing: Drouin doesn’t need to be more talented, he needs to be more committed. There’s just not enough of a work rate on the puck. You have got to bust your hump to win a puck in the playoffs. You have got to give it every ounce of energy that you have. You have to want it inside your very guts more than the other guy, and even then you’ve got only an even chance because that is how much the other guy wants it as well. What we have seen in these playoffs so far is just not enough commitment to be engaged and to battle. If that does not get better, Drouin’s series will be disappointing. He’s so extremely talented, but no one just gives you the puck, then gives you five free seconds and 60 feet to go with it. Your opposition makes you work for every inch, every second. That’s what it takes. That’s what he has to deliver. The Canadiens can’t really succeed without Drouin succeeding. He’s supposed to be one of the talent guys. He’s supposed to be a go-to guy. If your five best players overall are not your five best players in the NHL playoffs, then you won’t go far. Playoff success usually revolves around a pair of 30-minute defencemen, a 200-foot centre who dominates the middle of the ice, a goalie at the top of his game, and a finisher who has hot hands at the right time. Drouin needs to be that finisher, and so far he has had just the one chance, which was an unfortunate penalty shot where he lost control of the puck. Drouin is underachieving. We’ve all seen him dominate at times with Tampa Bay and with Montreal. We’ve seen the sweet hands. We’ve seen the terrific shot. We’ve seen why he was drafted third overall. He needs to show it now. And it doesn’t help that the biggest hole on the Canadiens’ roster could be filled by Mikhael Sergachev who is patrolling the blue line well and maturing nicely in Tampa Bay.
- The Canadiens defence put in a disciplined effort. There were times during this regular season that they allowed what seemed like a baker’s dozen of odd-man rushes. This series they have played it very tight. However, the 2-0 goal that put it in the win column for the Penguins was an odd-man rush. It was an unlucky moment for Brett Kulak. It was one of those times where you think at the opposition blue line that you can hold the line as the puck is coming to you, but it just didn’t roll to Kulak fast enough and the Penguins player got to it first. Then he poked it ahead beyond the flat-footed Kulak at the Penguins blue line and the two-on-one had been ignited. Bad luck for Kulak to point it out after he had a good night, but that’s hockey. It was the game-winner and he was primarily responsible.
- The NHL took a lot of criticism when they recently initiated a policy that they would not be revealing the results of which players were COVID-19-positive. In fact, they indicated that they wouldn’t even say what team a positive result had come from. Not revealing that vital information would lead to rampant speculation and take away from the games’ focus. That was the theory, anyway. However, it’s not much of a tricky issue when there are no positive tests. The NHL is safely in its bubble now, which was the greatest danger as everyone on the 24 teams travelled to Edmonton or Toronto trying to staying clean. This travel has been the downfall of Major League Baseball’s attempt to play a season, as massive numbers of positives on the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins seem to indicate that they could be on the verge of blowing up the entire baseball project. No issues whatsoever for the NHL, and it should be praised for its strong planning from a league perspective, and great behaviour from an individual perspective. Each club has a 52-person entourage. That number includes the players and coaches. In the last week, daily testing was administered totalling 7,013 tests. There has not been a single positive. Not one. That’s 52 people multiplied by 24 teams and not a single person has tested positive for a virus that scientists describe as highly contagious. There is no guarantee, however, that it continues this flawlessly. Two months is a long time to not run into a single issue, but so far, what a tremendous job done by the NHL.