It’s a whole new world for the 24 NHL teams participating in the playoffs, but for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens, an age-old question hovers around Game 1 of their qualifying-round series.
What about the goaltenders?
Pittsburgh and Montreal are playing in a safety “bubble” in Toronto with the rest of the Eastern Conference teams this postseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic that cut the regular season short in mid-March.
For the restart, under the expanded playoff format, the Penguins are keeping the choice of their starter in net on Saturday — Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry — a tightly held secret.
The Canadiens, meanwhile, have no doubt they will go with Carey Price, considered one of the top goalies in the league and Montreal’s best player.
Murray, 26, helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup in 2016 and ’17, both times technically as a rookie, and Pittsburgh chose to retain him over veteran and long-time franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury when it came to the Vegas expansion draft.
However, Murray has seen his game dip at times since then. He has lost eight of his past nine playoff starts, including last year’s sweep by the New York Islanders in the first round.
This season, he nearly split games with Jarry (38 games to Jarry’s 33), and Jarry, 25, not only seemed to move ahead of Murray but was named to the All-Star game. Jarry, though, has no NHL playoff experience.
“We have a comfort level with the tandem we have right now. Both are really good goalies,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “And they’re good people, first and foremost. They’re two guys we feel comfortable with who are going to give us a chance to win.”
Sullivan declined even to describe how he and his staff expect to arrive at a decision on a starter for Saturday.
“I’d rather not divulge the process that we go through,” he said. “That’s just part of the coaching staff’s philosophy and the way we’ve gone about our business.”
In a best-of-five series, as the qualifying round is, the importance of the goalie play could be magnified. There is little margin for error if Pittsburgh feels the need to continue evaluating both.
For Price, there is little margin for error, period.
He played in 58 games during the regular season, most among NHL goalies. Playing behind an inconsistent defense whose exact makeup for Saturday had not been determined by coach Claude Julien, Price’s numbers were off his normal pace — a 27-25-6 record, 2.79 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
Price is well aware of his importance in the series against Pittsburgh, but he’s looking for some help.
“I can sway the odds with outstanding play, but at the end of the day, we’ll all need to play over our heads to win,” Price said. “I just go out there and play my game, try not to do too much. We’ll win and lose as a team, and it’s always been like that.”
Among the skaters, Pittsburgh would seem to have a noticeable edge, including top centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Those two have led the Penguins to three Stanley Cups, and one of them was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy winner each time.
Montreal’s top line doesn’t have that kind of star power, with Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher, and there is a drop-off after that.
The Canadiens will have feisty center Max Domi available. He has opted to play despite having diabetes, which is considered an added risk factor for anyone who might contract COVID-19.
–Field Level Media