NHL.com is looking ahead to the Stanley Cup Qualifiers by examining five of the biggest questions facing each of the 24 remaining teams. Today, we look at the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were 40-23-6 (.623 points percentage) and will enter the Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will play the No. 12 seed, the Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, .500 points percentage), in one of eight best-of-5 series. The start date and hub city have not been determined.
Here are 5 key questions facing the Penguins:
1. Matt Murray or Tristan Jarry in goal?
Murray is a two-time Stanley Cup winner whose 20 wins and .899 save percentage are NHL career lows. Jarry went 12-2-0 with a 1.78 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in 13 starts from Nov. 16-Dec. 30, including three shutouts in four starts, and had a .929 save percentage at even strength compared to .901 for Murray. General manager Jim Rutherford said he was confident Murray would start, and coach Mike Sullivan said last week Pittsburgh is leaning toward Murray in Game 1, but Jarry will be ready if Murray struggles.
Video: PIT@BUF: Murray pushes across to stone Vesey
2. Can they avoid looking past the qualifiers?
They’re smart enough not to underestimate the Canadiens, whose points percentage is the lowest among the 24 teams that will compete for the Stanley Cup. Students of hockey history know about the 1991 Minnesota North Stars, 2012 Los Angeles Kings and 2019 Columbus Blue Jackets, and how the 39-33-10 Canadiens ended the Penguins’ championship reign with a seven-game victory in the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were on that team. They know anything can happen.
3. Which team shows up?
The Penguins were an NHL-best 10-2-0 in December and 23-10-2 in 35 games to take over first in the Metropolitan Division Feb. 18 after trailing the Washington Capitals by 13 points Dec. 4. They also lost six in a row (0-6-0) and were outscored 24-8 from Feb. 20-29 during their first such losing streak since Dec. 29, 2011-Jan. 11, 2012. It cost them what turned out to be a spot in the round-robin among the top four teams in each conference to determine seeds for the playoffs.
4. How quickly can Jake Guentzel return to form?
Pittsburgh won 40 games, 16 of them without Guentzel after he had shoulder surgery Dec. 31. He said on June 10 he hopes to be ready for the Canadiens. The challenge for Guentzel, who scored 40 goals in 2018-19 and 20 this season, will be playing at an elite level after a seven-month layoff. “I’m getting better every day,” he said. “Just kind of sticking to the protocol and what I have to do. If I can get rehabbed and feeling good, that’d be nice to get back playing.”
Video: OTT@PIT: Malkin sets up Guentzel’s 200th NHL point
5. How will they construct their lines?
Guentzel’s potential return leaves the Penguins with options at forward even without Dominik Simon (shoulder surgery) and Nick Bjugstad (spinal surgery). They could reunite Guentzel at left wing with Crosby on the top line and put Jason Zucker to Malkin’s left on the second line. Bryan Rust is a lock for the top six and Crosby has always been comfortable with Conor Sheary to his right. Bjugstad’s injury opens the door for Evan Rodrigues on the third line, possibly at left wing, with Jared McCann and Patric Hornqvist. Zach Aston-Reese, Teddy Blueger and Brandon Tanev is considered one of the best fourth lines in the NHL.
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