They’ll face the Winnipeg Jets, who had a significantly shorter experience in Round 1, but one that was no less impressive. They swept the Edmonton Oilers, while largely quieting superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
With a trip to the Stanley Cup semifinals on the line, which team will get to four wins first? Let’s break it down position-by-position, assess the special teams and injury status of both clubs, and make a series pick.
More: Check out the full NHL postseason schedule here.
Regular-season series: 6-3 for the Jets.
First line: The Jets’ top line of Mark Scheifele (63 points) in between Kyle Connor (26 goals) and Blake Wheeler (46 points) is a potent offensive trio with defensive deficiencies. Granted, when you’re matched up against Connor McDavid in the first round, you’re not going to have an expected goals advantage at 5-on-5 (43.53%). But they also gave up an average of 3.30 goals per 60 minutes at even strength in the regular season, too.
The Canadiens slid rookie Cole Caufield next to center Nick Suzuki and top-scoring winger Tyler Toffoli (28 goals). The results haven’t come quite yet for the trio — they generate more expected goals than other Canadiens lines, but have defensive deficiencies — but the talent here is undeniable. Advantage: Winnipeg
Forward depth: The return of Nikolaj Ehlers was a key for the Jets in the first round, as he scored two goals. The Jets averaged 3.15 goals per game with him and 2.25 goals per game in the nine games without him in the regular season. He’s skated with veteran Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois, who also returned from injury in the first round. We’ve yet to see playoff beast mode from Dubois like we saw in the bubble (10 points in 10 games). The trio of Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Mason Appleton offer consistent defense and occasional offense. Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis make the most of limited ice time (58.3% expected goals percentage in the regular season).
Carey Price was the Canadiens’ MVP in the first round, but their checking line was just as important in shutting down Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher are the foundation for that line, which has seen Jack Evans and Tomas Tatar skating with them. (Tatar was a scratch in Games 6 and 7.) Jesperi Kotkaniemi (three goals in the playoffs) centers Josh Anderson and Paul Byron, who owns the prettiest goal of the postseason so far. Corey Perry, who made his impact felt in the Toronto series in more ways than one — unintentionally injuring John Tavares and scoring in Game 7 — skates with trade addition Eric Staal and Joel Armia (four points in the playoffs) on the fourth line. Staal, a disappointment after the trade deadline, has four points in six games in the playoffs. Advantage: Even
Defense: The Jets’ blue line is without question the thinnest position on the team. Ice-time leader Josh Morrissey saw his offensive production drop this season. His pairing with Dylan DeMelo did what it could against McDavid’s line in the first round. Derek Forbort and Neal Pionk were a more effective pairing in the regular season than the Jets’ top defensemen, as Pionk’s 32 points in 54 games led Winnipeg defensemen. Tucker Poolman and Logan Stanley fill out the group.
The Canadiens relied exclusively on their top four defenseman to carry the group. Shea Weber (25:36 average ice time) and Ben Chariot (24:49), and Jeff Petry (24:37) with Joel Edmundson (21:13) led the team in ice time. Brett Kulak and Erik Gustafsson were the little-used other pairing, with defenseman Jon Merrill out of the lineup. Advantage: Montreal
Goaltending: It was assumed that to defeat the Oilers, goalie Connor Hellebuyck would have to be the Jets’ best player in most games. He lived up to the billing, going 4-0 with a .950 save percentage and a 1.60 goals-against average. Against Montreal this season, he was 6-3-0, with a .916 save percentage and a 2.67 goals-against average.
All those polls from the NHLPA that said Carey Price was the goalie the players wanted most if there’s a Game 7? They’re all validated now. Price had a .932 save percentage against Toronto in their Habs’ upset win, and was their best player in Game 7. There aren’t many goalies in the league that can hope to match the Jets’ advantage in goal. This is one of them. Advantage: Even
Coaching: Jets coach Paul Maurice baffled the Oilers by changing tactics to start their series against Edmonton, playing a collapsing defense and leaving McDavid and Leon Draisaitl scoreless in the first two games. A smart veteran coach that knows his lineup well and makes the most of it.
Interim coach Dominique Ducharme deserves credit for a few lineup tweaks and for keeping this team motivated after they went down 3-1 in the Toronto series. But it’s with a certain amount of irony that we note the Canadiens basically won the series by playing just as fired coach Claude Julien would have had them play: stacking the defense across the defending blue line and collapsing around Price. Advantage: Winnipeg
Health: Jets defenseman Nathan Beaulieu had season-ending surgery on April 2 for a torn labrum in his shoulder. His recovery is expected to run deep into the summer.
Montreal defenseman Jon Merrill is expected to miss two weeks with an injury suffered in the first round. Forward Jonathan Drouin remains out of the lineup for personal reasons, with no determination on his return. Advantage: Winnipeg
Special teams: The Jets had the seventh best power play (23.0%) and 13th best penalty kill (80.5%) in the regular season. They stopped the Oilers on nine of 11 power-play chances in their first-round series, which is no small feat.
Montreal was 3-for-19 on the power play in the first round, scoring all of those goals in the last two games of the series. They were 17th in the NHL (19.2%) in the regular season. The Canadiens dramatically improved their penalty kill in the first round, as Toronto was 3-for-23 with the man advantage (an 87% stop rate). They were at 78.5% in the regular season. Advantage: Winnipeg
Series pick: Jets in six. No disrespect to the job Montreal did in eliminating the Maple Leafs in the first round, but these Jets are healthier, more offensively balanced and — above all else — have a more fortified playoff mentality than did the Leafs. The Habs are a tough out. They’re going to have more heroic moments from Price and others. But the Jets won’t be rattled, and will advance.