In a normal season, Montreal wouldn't have made anyone's short list of Stanley Cup favorites.
Heck, in a normal season, the Canadiens wouldn't even have qualified to play past Game No. 82 in the regular season.
But all traces of normalcy in the 2019-20 NHL season were shredded months ago by the coronavirus pandemic, and the Canadiens will participate in the postseason.
Well, the qualifying round to get into the playoffs, anyway.
Which is why, under the return-to-play plan formulated by the league and the NHL Players Association, the Penguins will have to survive a best-of-five series against Montreal to secure the official playoff berth that seemed to be locked up before the NHL suspended operations March 12.
And why Kris Letang Thursday cautioned about putting too much emphasis on the Penguins' 15-point edge over Montreal in the regular-season standings, or on them being the top seed among Eastern Conference clubs in the play-in round, while the Canadiens are the lowest.
Montreal, he suggested, presents a clear and present threat to the Penguins' chances of earning the franchise's sixth Stanley Cup. Just as the other 22 clubs whose seasons remain alive could be.
"They have tons of skill and speed," Letang said. "And that's probably something people don't really appreciate enough from them.
"Every single team in this league is a good matchup, and we know it because all year, we have to battle against teams. It doesn't matter where they were standing in the league. Every night is a good matchup.
"Montreal obviously is a young team. They're fast. They have a lot of energy around their forwards. People know that they have a great goaltender in Carey Price."
Penguins players, and those from the other clubs who will take part in the play-in round and/or the traditional playoffs, are expected to begin preparations sometime in early June, with small-group skating sessions.
They will be informal, with no coaches and six or fewer players on the ice at a time, but Letang believes they will be critical. Not just because many players have not skated for more than 2 1/2 months, but because the actual training camps projected to be held in July likely will stress preparing teams for the games in front of them.
"In those Phase 2 informal skates, I think it's going to be up to the players to actually ramp up their work and make sure they're able to really simulate the conditioning (level) of a game," Letang said. "When training camp is going to start, I think the coaches will really focus on the collective side of things, because you don't have that much time, and you're going to get right into it, so you want to make sure your team game is top-notch. I think it's really going to be up to the players to do the work in that Phase 2. On the ice and off the ice."
Although the best-of-five format for the qualifying round has been set, the league has yet to determine whether Rounds 1 and 2 of the actual playoffs will be best-of-five or best-of-seven.
Letang, the Penguins' player representative, said the guys with whom he has spoken have a clear preference.
"Everybody is used to the best-of-seven," he said. "You know how it's structured. You know how you feel if you lose the first two, or if you win the first two. You know all the scenarios that can (happen) in a best-of-seven."
Letang is one of three Penguins players to pick up Cup rings in 2009, 2016 and 2017 -- Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are the others -- and while his team's extensive playoff experience could work in its favor, Letang said that should not be emphasized too much.
"We're always going to bank on guys like Sid, (Malkin), Matt (Murray) who have had a ton of success in the playoffs, so obviously experience is a big factor," he said. "In this case, though, it so different. Guys are really starting from scratch.
"There's no momentum going in. There are no favorites. Everybody is starting equal. It's a great opportunity for every single team. The fact we'll be in a stoppage for maybe four months before we start really playing games, there's no real advantage for anyone."
He feels there shouldn't be one of those for the "home" teams once games begin, since the league's plan is for them to be contested in two "hub" cities, and with no fans in the building.
Playing high-stakes games in settings that might seem more suitable to a scrimmage will be a major change, of course, but not one Letang expects to have a significant or lasting impact.
"It's going to be so different but honestly, guys will get used to it quick," he said. "They're going to be in the zone. They're going to be focusing. It's going to be so different, but eventually -- after maybe a period or two, or maybe a game -- you're going to get used to it, so it shouldn't affect the guys at all. You know what you're playing for, and your focus should be mainly on that."
This will be unlike any postseason Letang and his teammates have gone through, and probably unlike any they will experience in the future. He knows, however, that the one thing that hasn't changed is that the team that wins its final game will get a big silver trophy to show for its effort.
"It's a great opportunity," Letang said. "We battled all year, and we know what it takes to win."
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