Habs' good karma in Game 7 the result of Pens' mistakes, lethargy
The Penguins' lack of focus played a huge part in the Habs' early 4-0 run
Pittsburgh has played in 303 games (including playoffs) the last three years
The Canadiens are the second No. 8 seed to reach a conference final
Now we know what that great "White Out" at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh truly represents.
In a stunning display of indifferent hockey that can only be summed up in two words -- no mas -- the Penguins, now ex-defending Stanley Cup champions, closed the Igloo with an ignominious 5-2 loss to destiny's darling, the Montreal Canadiens.
Maybe the Penguins really were 50 percent more talented than Montreal, but that didn't give them the right to play only the second half of Game 7.
Despite arousing themselves in the second half of the match -- only to be snuffed by brilliant goalie Jaroslav Halak -- Pittsburgh looked like a team that simply was hockey-ed out. Considering Game 7 was their 303rd match of the past three seasons, the Penguins, who had played in the past two finals, can be excused, in a sense, for being exhausted. When you factor in the Olympians on their roster who were obliged to go through a two-week hockey inferno for their countries in Vancouver, it was not necessarily a shock that Pittsburgh furballed a 3-2 series lead over a team that, based on points, was the 19th best in the NHL this season.
For the franchise, this was the most disappointing loss since Game 7 of the 1993 second-round series when they fell at home to the New York Islanders on David Volek's overtime goal. (At that point, Pittsburgh had won two straight Cups and the path seemed cleared for a third, the kind of achievement that would have nudged Mario Lemieux & Co. toward dynasty status.) But a more telling historical precedent actually occurred five years later in a Western Conference first-round Game 7 between Edmonton and Colorado:
The Avalanche oozed Olympians, but the Nagano experience for a team that always played deep into the playoffs simply overwhelmed them. After winning three of the first four matches, the Avalanche lost the last three to the lightly regarded Oilers, including a 4-0 naptime season-ender in Denver.
Seemingly the Penguins announced their intentions 10 seconds into this match when captain Sidney Crosby, the same player who received the "Nice leadership" bouquet from Detroit coach Mike Babcock in the Game 7 handshake line at the 2009 Stanley Cup final, rammed Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges into the boards. If this was showing leadership -- physical presence, and all that -- it was also showing the Penguins the path to the penalty box. Some 30 seconds later, Montreal point man P.K. Subban, who didn't have many options, drifted down the boards and floated a backhander in the direction of goalie Marc-André Fleury.
When Fleury is having a case of the shakes -- surprising, really, because he had won the only two Game 7s of his NHL career -- the modest act of shoveling a puck toward the net will always be a decent play. Brian Gionta tipped the puck as it knuckled toward infamy, exactly the kind of smelly goal, 32 seconds into the match, which can make even a veteran team unravel.
The Canadiens added to their lead some seven minutes later, again thanks to another player with enough poise and portfolio to have played in the Olympics. The first Montreal goal can be blamed on Team Canada mainstays Crosby and Fleury. The second was the indirect handiwork of Team USA defenseman Brooks Orpik, who seemed more concerned with settling a score than the big scoreboard suspended from the roof at Mellon Arena. Orpik became entangled behind the net with Maxim Lapierre, who filibusters as well as any NHL player. And while Lapierre is the kind of pot-stirrer whom opponents hope will get his eventually, they generally don't mean in a Game 7. With Orpik otherwise engaged, the puck came out to an unmarked Dominic Moore, who, like he did in Game 7 of the first-round Washington series, scored a backbreaking goal, from maybe 30 feet. Orpik was a good second late in getting into a shooting lane.
Montreal would add to the lead in the second period, first with Mike Cammalleri's NHL-leading 12th goal of the playoffs. Cammalleri would be getting more acclaim if he did something more dramatic than a simple first pump after each goal, although he looked a little more animated this time after finding a seam, as he does uncannily, and whistling a shot past Fleury's glove, his seventh goal of the series.
But a subsequent Montreal goal some two minutes later was more problematic for the Penguins because of what NHL coaches, in their on-going effort to enrich the English language, call "compete level." Travis Moen, killing a penalty, was tentatively skating down the left, gaining the Penguins' line, when, like a traffic cop working a busy intersection at rush hour, defenseman Sergei Gonchar basically waved him through. (Ole, ole, ole is what the fans in Montreal sing, not what venerated Penguins defensemen are supposed do.) Moen took the free pass from Gonchar, skated to the faceoff circle and beat Fleury some five minutes into the period.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma finally excused Fleury after four goals on 13 shots, replacing him with Brent Johnson, who last played a month ago. The move seemed to snap the Penguins out of their lethargy. Chris Kunitz scored some two minutes later on a rebound of a Kris Letang shot that caromed off the end boards while Jordan Staal, one of the few Penguins who was involved from the start, scored on a tip with 3˝ minutes left to pare Montreal's lead to a manageable two goals heading into the third period.
But Halak was bulletproof in the third, stoning Crosby from in close in the opening minute on a Penguins' 4-on-3 and flashing his left pad to foil Evgeni Malkin on a subsequent power play. Given their own opportunity on a Pittsburgh too-many-men penalty midway through the period, Cammalleri feathered a pass over a sliding Mark Eaton near the goal crease and Gionta batted the puck in to restore the Canadiens' lead of three goals.
For Montreal, the trip to a conference final was its first since 1993, when Patrick Roy's 10 straight overtime wins coated a Stanley Cup spring in pixie dust. Clearly Halak has picked up the Roy torch, making 37 saves -- 18 in the third -- to complete his second series upset. In the end -- and for the Igloo, this was truly the end -- the goalie and swarming Canadiens defenders would hold Malkin and Crosby to a combined three goals in the series. Montreal played all-in hockey, committing to a defensive style leavened with a smattering of counterattack and special teams.
Judging by the first 25-plus minutes of the game, the Penguins, all tuckered out, just folded.
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