Friday April 30th, 2010

Season series: Pittsburgh won, 3-1

Oct. 28: Pittsburgh 6, Montreal 1 Nov. 25: Pittsburgh 3, Montreal 1 Dec. 10: Pittsburgh 3, Montreal 2 Feb. 6: Montreal 5, Pittsburgh 3

How the Penguins can win: The clear and obvious talent gap gives the Penguins a significant edge, but to get past this series they may need to lean on their accumulated experience and smarts. If there's a lesson to be learned from watching the Habs upset the Caps, it's that the Penguins need to make better decisions with their shots. Overshadowed by the accolades for Jaroslav Halak was the stunning fact that Montreal's skaters blocked 41 shots. Part of that can be attributed to the expected playoff-induced uptick in courage. But a bigger part might have been Washington's over-reliance on the slapper. A little wrister may lack drama, but it gets off the stick quicker and is more accurate, giving the blocker less time to react. The Pens are a team that, unlike the Caps, is used to spending time in the trenches. The greater the number of pucks that get to the net in the first place, the more effective they'll be exploiting Halak down low.

How the Canadiens can win: Rinse. Lather. Repeat. The Habs aren't kidding themselves into believing they were a better team than the Capitals, but they found a formula for upending them in a seven-game series and they'll rely on it again to vanquish the Pens. Start with great goaltending. Then incapacitate Pittsburgh's power play with great goaltending. Then crush the Pens' resolve with great goaltending. Then...well, you get the picture. That's not to suggest Halak was the only reason the Habs got past the Caps -- or is the only path around the defending champs -- but he'll have to be sensationnel again. The quick turnaround from the last series also provides a challenge. Montreal's ability to change focus and make adjustments almost overnight will be key to stealing at least the one game in Pittsburgh that they'll need to mount a serious challenge.

Key performer: Jaroslav Halak. You were expecting Max Lapierre? The hope of any underdog in a playoff series is that their goaltender makes like Ken Dryden against the Bruins in 1971, and that's pretty much the miracle that Halak delivered in round one. It's unrealistic to expect him to continue at the pace that saw him stop 131 of the 134 shots he saw over the final three games against the Caps, but he doesn't have to match the quantity. The right stops at the right moments are all the Habs need to keep their dreams alive.

Keep an eye on: Hal Gill and Josh Gorges. Montreal's shutdown duo played a critical role in frustrating Washington's top offensive stars, particularly Alexander Ovechkin. Of course, OV has a history of being checked into Sam Wheat territory. Sidney Crosby and the Pens provide an entirely different challenge. Gill and Gorges will need to be a bit more subtle in their coverage. It might seem less aggressive, but as long as they maintain their gap control, they'll be effective.

X-factor: Just how pumped will Sid be? Crosby can dominate any game, or series, almost at will, but he seems to take considerable pleasure in working his magic against the favorite team of his childhood. In 18 career games, he has 11 goals and 25 points. If he can create that kind of mojo in this round, the Pens won't be beat.

Prediction: Penguins in six

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