Much blame for Penguins, many kudos for Canadiens
There were reports that Marc-Andre Fleury was late for team meetings
The Canadiens looked well-prepared and the Penguins took them lightly
Jaroslav Halak is on his way to Montreal legend and anything is possible
Add my name to the growing list of those hailing the achievements of the Montreal Canadiens -- especially their tenacity that was needed to win two seventh games on the road. I will address that topic farther down, but some things need to be kept in perspective and the truth is that Pittsburgh Penguins did as much to lose their second-round series as the Canadiens did to win it.
Pittsburgh's goaltending in Game 7 and throughout the series was just shy of abysmal. Marc-Andre Fleury was weak on the first three of the four goals scored against him on Wednesday night. He was also a primary reason the series went to seven games. Fleury posted the worst save percentage of any goalie coming into the second round. He confirmed it with a .891 (compared to Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak's playoff-leading .933) on his way out.
Fleury's only notable success was a 2-0 shutout in Game 3 in which his team was particularly strong in front of him while limiting the Habs to just 18 shots.
There appears these days to be some concern regarding Fleury and his game preparation and mental toughness. There were reports early in the playoffs of his racing to be on time for team meetings and that he didn't seem as focused as he was last season when both he and the Penguins played through some of his inconsistencies en route to winning the Cup.
But there's more.
The Canadiens rightly get credit for containing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the core of Pittsburgh's offense, but the usually dynamic duo aided and abetted the effort. Crosby at one point in Game 7 was a minus-3 (he finished minus-2) and was in the box for a needless boarding penalty when the Canadiens scored the all-important first goal just 32 seconds into the game.
Crosby had just one goal in the series -- hardly what one would expect from a player who had a 100-point regular season and is a finalist for league MVP. That goal came in Game Six while nemesis defenseman Hal Gill was out an injury. Worse, Crosby couldn't mesh with Malkin on the power play and he sulked after his boarding penalty 10 seconds into the game, arguing against it seemingly because he's Sidney Crosby and he shouldn't get that call so early in such an important game.
Neither Crosby nor the Penguins ever recovered and he went on to play poorly in a game in which the captain and arguably the best clutch player in the league should be the leader. Malkin, whose career reputation in big games has been dogged by what appears to be a lack of motivation, did not score an even-strength goal in the series and was largely the problem in Pittsburgh's discombobulated power play. With Crosby melting down, there was a need for Malkin to step up and lead. Not only did he not rise to the occasion, he was a big part of the reason the Canadiens were able to dictate play on Pittsburgh's ice.
The Penguins appeared nervous at the start and downright panicked after the Canadiens' early goals. Instead of taking charge, Malkin seemed to be standing still as Montreal dominated play in the Pittsburgh zone. Pulling down an otherwise decent defensive corps, Sergei Gonchar -- to borrow a phrase from Mike Lange -- was regularly "beaten like a rented mule.
Lastly, one could make an argument that Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma was outdone by counterpart Jacques Martin. Martin consistently got the matchups he wanted when Crosby and Malkin were on the ice, even when the Penguins had the last change. Bylsma never found an answer to the Canadiens' ability to control his power play or to Martin's defensive tactics. It's always risky to call a time-out early in the game, but Bylsma should have done it after the Canadiens' second goal, in an attempt to calm his team and remind it that it was the more experienced squad, the Stanley Cup champion that has had success in deciding playoff games, and that it was time to act like it. That never happened and Bylsma will no doubt spend the summer thinking about it.
Hail to the Habs
As for the Canadiens, well this says it all: the No. 8 seed, having taken down the No.1 of the regular season (Washington) and defending Stanley Cup champions (Pittsburgh) now awaits the winner of the battle of the sixth and seventh seeds in order to play for the Eastern Conference Championship.
That can't be an accident
A team put together on the fly last offseason (after 10 free agents hit the market) by a general manager (Bob Gainey) who is no longer there has taken the best of the East to seven games and won twice with a rookie goaltender, a new (to the Canadiens at least) head coach, and players that the Calgary Flames, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils (two playoff also-rans and a first-round loser) deemed not worthy of re-signing.
Mike Cammalleri, the player Flames GM Darryl Sutter let walk in favor of megabust Olli Jokinen, scored seven goals in the series (and 12 in the playoffs so far) and almost single-handedly destroyed the Penguins. Former Rangers castoff Scott Gomez was devilishly quick on faceoffs and exploiting the Penguins defense with quality passes, cracking seams with penetrating rushes off the transition game.
Brian Gionta, who is arguably the smallest forward in the NHL (a listed 5-9 but no one would testify to that in open court) also found ways to bust Pittsburgh's penalty-killing box, scoring a pair of power-play goals in Game 7. It was Gionta who took advantage of Crosby's ill-conceived boarding penalty to score the opening goal 32 seconds into the contest.
None of the three were on the roster last season as Gainey overhauled the unit in an attempt to change the culture of a squad that seemed to care more about participating in Montreal's storied night life than winning when it mattered most.
Then there was the unlikeliest dynamic duo since Batman took in the Boy Wonder. The defensive pairing of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges dominated Crosby and his linemates. Crosby had five points in the series. Match that against his 13 in the first round vs. Ottawa and Crosby went from being front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy to explaining how the eighth-seeded team got the better of him and his teammates in seven games.
Crosby whined a lot about the perceived hooking, holding and blows he took in the series with the Canadiens, especially with Gill on the ice, but Crosby had only 17 shots in the series and five of them came in the failed Game 7. Clearly he was being shutdown via a commitment to defense that the Senators could not or would not make.
If you subscribe to the theory that "the rules are different in the playoffs" (something the NHL now repeatedly denies), you might have an argument. But the Canadiens employed the same tactics in shutting down Alex Ovechkin in the first round, so Crosby should have seen it coming. The tactic was designed to smother a star player and it's been used throughout the history of the game. The counteraction is for the star to make better use of his linemates, and neither Crosby nor his coach where able to make that adjustment. The Canadiens' coaches get marks for making that happen.
Crosby and, to some degree, Malkin ran the same plays they always run. Cammalleri and company, meanwhile, found different ways to the net and exploited Pittsburgh's defense and Fleury in ways that seemed to confuse the Penguins. Martin, before Game 7, said Cammalleri and Gionta had an "unbelievable knack for knowing where the seam is, knowing where the hole is and anticipating what they needed to do to get there."
There is a "knack" to that, but there is also something to be gained from studying video and the tendencies of the players you are up against. Montreal players did that. Can Washington and Pittsburgh players, who may have taken the Canadiens lightly, say the same?
And then there is Halak. The Montreal goalie turned aside 37 of 39 shots, including his usual number of "sick" saves on the best the Penguins put forth. Halak to date is unbeatable in elimination games (he's now 5-0 in these playoffs), posting a .960 save percentage. He is now well down the path walked by Montreal goaltending heroes including the iconic Patrick Roy, Ken Dryden and even Gump Worsley, Jacques Plante, Bill Durnan, George Hainsworth and the man who happens to have his name on the Vezina Trophy (best goaltender), Georges Vezina.
Halak didn't just make 37 saves on shots outside the traditional scoring zones, he made them from close in and during six Pittsburgh power plays. Perhaps more impressively, he put up his numbers even though the Pittsburgh man-advantage units went four-for-four in the first game of the series and drove him from the net.
You can look long and hard for a "bad goal" by Halak, but outside of that understandable emotional letdown after beating the Capitals, you just can't find it. Even in the games he got beat, he was often the best player on the ice for either team. He was cool, calm, played within himself at all times and never gave up that "Fleury-like" goal you get off the Mister Softie truck. It's a trait that served Halak and his teammates well.
"That's what I'm there for," Halak said after his second consecutive mega-triumph. "Guys block shots, guys score goals, kill penalties, everybody on this team contributes to what we're doing, and I just do my part."
His teammates see it another way.
"Obviously we are not perfect," said Gill, "but he has bailed us out every time we weren't."
Every time! That alone may be the single biggest difference between the Canadiens and both the Penguins and the Capitals.
If you've got goaltending, you've got a chance to do anything, even what many consider to be impossible.
The Canadiens are playing to that level.
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