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'Anything can happen': Canadiens no bothered by underdog role against Penguins

TORONTO — Shea Weber is fine being the underdog. Good thing, because the Montreal Canadiens and their captain are certainly that heading into the team's qualifying round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

TORONTO — Shea Weber is fine being the underdog.

Good thing, because the Montreal Canadiens and their captain are certainly that heading into the team's qualifying round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Canadiens were playing out the string, sitting 24th in the overall standings — some 15 points back of the seventh-ranked Penguins — when the NHL was shut down in mid-March by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Montreal had traded away a number of veterans and was already looking to next season. But when the league settled on a 24-team format in the spring for its summer restart to the 2019-20 campaign, the Canadiens just snuck in under the wire and now have a chance to rewrite their script.

All that's standing in their way is a battle-tested opponent with championship pedigree led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

"I've got no problem with that," Weber said of his team being given little chance heading into the best-of-five series that opens Saturday at Scotiabank Arena inside the Toronto bubble. "We could be underdogs all day. That's fine. It's a situation that we've all been in before. Nobody should take offence to that and no one should listen to that.

"Anything can happen."

It can, but Montreal figures to be in tough.

The club parted with veteran forwards Ilya Kovalchuk and Nate Thompson, as well as steady defenceman Marco Scandella, prior to the trade deadline, meaning that a number of young players will have increased roles much sooner than expected.

"You take what you have," Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said. "We have a great opportunity here to grow."

Pittsburgh, meanwhile, still has the nucleus of its Stanley Cup-winning teams from 2016 and 2017, and is hungry to respond after getting swept in the first round of last spring's playoffs by the New York Islanders.

"Everyone's in the same position, everyone's got a clean slate," Crosby said of playing a meaningful game for the first time in 4 1/2 months. "The fact that we can have our team healthy, we haven't really had the luxury the whole year.

"Everyone's excited to get going."

Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said staying within Pittsburgh's structure is key against an opponent that will look to keep things tight defensively.

"We're going to have to fight for our scoring chances," he said. "We're going to have to have an element of patience associated with our game so that we don't force plays that aren't there and turn into a high-risk team.

"It's going to be a hard-fought battle."

And while most observers would disagree — a significant number of Canadiens fans are actually hoping their team loses and secures a 12.5 per cent chance of winning the No. 1 pick in the NHL's second draft lottery so Montreal can select Quebec-born junior star Alexis Lafreniere — Sullivan said his locker room won't be caught off guard.

"There's a lot of parity in this league (and) there's such a fine line between winning and losing," he said. "The difference between the top-5 teams and the middle-of-the-pack teams is not that significant."

Goaltender Carey Price and the Canadiens, however, know the hill they'll have to climb in order to advance to the usual 16-team playoff bracket.

"Trying to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins is an enormous challenge," he said. "Winning a Stanley Cup is an enormous challenge. I don't think anybody knows this any better than the Pittsburgh Penguins."

Weber, meanwhile, is convinced if things fall right, Montreal has a chance to do something special.

"You look at the history of playoffs, of the Stanley Cup over the years, strange things have happened," said the defenceman. "Teams get on a roll at the right time, good goaltending, and stay healthy.

"You just don't know."


KEY MATCHUP — Weber versus Crosby and/or Malkin. Montreal's blue line needs to come up big for the Canadiens to have any chance. Phillip Danault will get the call up front at centre against one of Pittsburgh's top lines, which means rookie Nick Suzuki is likely to be matched up against the other.

THE BIG QUESTION — Can Price hold the fort and can the Canadiens find enough goals to make it a series?

PLAYOFF HISTORY — The Penguins have qualified for the playoffs 13 straight seasons, including Cup wins in 2016 and 2017. Pittsburgh suffered that sweep at the hands of the Islanders last spring after falling to the rival Washington Capitals, who would go on to win their first title, in the second round two years ago. Montreal has missed the playoffs three of the last four seasons after making the second round in 2015. 

COACHES' PLAYOFF HISTORY —  Sullivan has led his teams to the playoffs five times, winning those back-to-back Cups with Pittsburgh. Julien has been in the playoffs on 10 different occasions, including a title victory with Boston in 2011 and a loss with the Bruins in the 2013 final.

REGULAR-SEASON RECORDS — The Penguins were fifth in the Eastern Conference at 40-23-6, while the Canadiens were 12th with a mark of 31-31-9.

SEASON SERIES — Montreal was 1-1-1 against Pittsburgh, with the Canadiens' lone victory coming in a 4-1 road decision back in December.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 31, 2020.


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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press