After more than four months without hockey, our team of RotoWire experts is here to get you back up to speed ahead of the eight play-in series kicking off Aug. 1 in Toronto and Edmonton. Via eight preview pieces over eight days, we get into positional breakdowns, injury updates and series predictions to help you chart the course for your frozen fantasy journey this summer!
No. 5 Pittsburgh Penguins (40-23-6, 3rd in Metropolitan, .623 points percentage)
No. 12 Montreal Canadiens (31-31-9, 5th in Atlantic, .500 points percentage)
Penguins: In terms of sheer star power, few teams around the league can match up with Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined for 41 goals and 80 assists despite playing in just 96 games this season due to injury. With Jake Guentzel originally expected to miss the rest of the season with a shoulder injury, general manager Jim Rutherford went out and brought in Jason Zucker, who provided immediate returns with 12 points, including a pair of game-winning goals, in 15 games. Thanks to the extra time off, Crosby will be reunited with playoff-stud Guentzel. In three postseason runs, the 25-year-old winger racked up 24 goals and 43 points in 41 contests. The team will also see the reunion of the "Sid and the Kids" line after Conor Sheary was brought back. Meanwhile, Bryan Rust rounds out the top-six following his reaching both the 25-goal and 50-point thresholds for the first time in his career.
Canadiens: Losing a top-3 scorer is something few clubs can recover from if Max Domi opts out. It will fall to Nick Suzuki to fill the gap at second-line center after notching 41 points in 71 contests, though he also posted a concerning minus-15 rating and could struggle against Pittsburgh's top six. Still, the first line is certainly capable of putting up plenty of points, as Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher combined for 151 points in 198 appearances and should make up the No. 1 power-play unit alongside Jeff Petry and Paul Byron. Unlike the Penguins, the Habs' second line isn't a lock in terms of personnel, and any combination of Byron, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen could skate there with Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin.
The Blue Line
Penguins: Back-end scoring for Pittsburgh starts and stops with Kris Letang, who managed 15 goals and 29 assists in 51 appearances this year, including 15 power-play points. Rookie John Marino finished second in blue-line scoring with 26 points and could join Justin Schultz on the No. 2 power-play unit if head coach Mike Sullivan opts to utilize two defensemen.
Canadiens: For the third straight season, Jeff Petry has crested the 40-point mark and is an underrated offensive talent from the blue line. In fact, the 32-year-old blueliner has led the club in scoring in each of the past three campaigns, no doubt in part due to extended injury absences by Shea Weber. Unlike Pittsburgh, the Habs offer a pair of offensive-minded rearguards with Weber, though it's Petry who will likely hold down the spot on the No. 1 power-play unit.
Between the Pipes
Penguins: There likely won't be any clear answers for the starter for the Aug. 1 clash prior to puck drop. Tristan Jarry outperformed Matt Murray in the regular season, but Murray owns a pair of Stanley Cup rings. Considering the team used both their goaltenders during their previous two cup runs, it's possible the decision will be made on a round-by-round basis. Because of this, locking in either netminder as a top fantasy option between the pipes is a bit of a gamble, to say the least.
Canadiens: This is without question the biggest advantage Montreal has coming into this matchup, as Carey Price remains one of the best goalies in the league. The 32-year-old went 27-25-6 with a 2.79 GAA and four shutouts in 58 outings this year but hasn't played in the postseason since 2016-17.
Penguins: The team will be without Nick Bjugstad (back) and Dominik Simon (shoulder), which shouldn't present too many problems considering Bjugstad barely played this season and Simon only found twine seven times in 64 games. A healthy Guentzel gives this team a pair of top-end scorers on the left side.
Canadiens: At the end of the regular season, Montreal was dealing with injuries to Tatar and Mete, both of whom have come into training camp fully fit and ready to play. The addition of Tatar will bolster the top six and help to counteract the potential loss of Domi, who as of this writing, hasn't yet decided if he'll participate in the postseason.
AJ Scholz: The Penguins may not have the same advantage in the crease, but their ability to put together a star-studded forward complement creates matchup havoc for Montreal, especially considering their second line of Jason Zucker, Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust could easily be a top unit on many other teams around the league. Expect Pittsburgh to cruise to a 3-0 sweep.
Kyle Riley: Price is bound to stand on his head at some point during this series and steal a game, but the Habs will be no match for the mighty Penguins. Pittsburgh advances easily with a 3-1 series win.
Jordan Buckley: Unprecedented variables abound! One would think the lack of a crowd and home-ice advantage, a shortened five-game series and players jumping into full-blown playoff mode after a near five-month absence could create an upset or two. Will this series feature one? Even if Price steals a game (or two), and Domi suits up, I wouldn't count on it. Pens in 4.
Jason Chen: The Habs only have a chance in this series is if Carey Price returns to his elite form and the Pens' goaltending implodes. After a lengthy break, Jake Guentzel will return to the lineup, and that further tips the scales in the Pens' favor with their elite talent, quality depth and experience. Penguins in four.
Evan Berofsky: Carey Price has been known to steal a game, but there's no way he's taking three on his own. Jake Guentzel's return will provide a solid boost to the Pens' top-six. Despite the questions surrounding who will start in net, Pittsburgh's combined talent should easily handle Montreal. Pens in 3.
Jan Levine: For Montreal to win, Carey Price needs to become Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy combined. While that could happen, and that concern was why Pittsburgh supposedly wanted a best-of-5 series rather than a best-of-3, Pittsburgh is deeper and better than the Canadiens and should prevail in four games, allowing for Price to stand on his head in one contest. Penguins in four.