Saturday May 1st, 2010

PITTSBURGH -- In the annual playoff rite of attrition, the Penguins won the battle, 6-3, but they tied the war. For Pittsburgh, the casualty was center Jordan Staal, who was spotted leaving Mellon Arena before the conclusion of Game 1 on crutches with an apparent injury to his right knee. For Montreal, the casualty was defenseman Andrei Markov, who left the ice in the first period after seemingly hurting his left ankle or leg -- "Lower body injury, he will reevaluated tomorrow," said that font of information, coach Jacques Martin -- after a hit by Matt Cooke. So whose loss will be more significant? Let's look at the impact of the two stars. The initial impulse is to suggest that any hope of a second major playoff upset by Montreal went au revoir with Markov's injury. Not that the Canadiens figured to jump the tanned, ready and rested Penguins even with 25 sterling minutes from one of their alternate captains. After all, the Canadiens are not stats in a fantasy hockey pool but human beings, even if they gave a superhuman effort in blocking 41 shots to help dispatch the favored Capitals in Washington 48 hours earlier. And while he didn't exactly sparkle against the Capitals -- or since his return from the Olympics, if we're being completely frank - Markov eats minutes. He averaged 26:26 in the first round.

Even a subpar Markov is a big part of the Montreal numerical equation. Check it out. From 2005-06 until the start of this season, the Canadiens absolutely bumbled around without him. The record: 6-19-3. Markov was injured in the opener this season when he got tangled with goalie Carey Price and did not return until Dec. 19. Montreal learned to live without him this season, but only marginally. The Canadiens were 14-20-3 in his absence, but 25-13-7 with Markov.

Markov was a classic case of starting with injury and adding insult. Cooke, who of those guys who is presumed guilty until proven innocent, rocked him with a seismic hit in the corner. This was not a high hit to an unsuspecting opponent -- c.f. Savard, Marc -- but the check was no less devastating. "He seemed to try to hit me and it brought him off his feet," Cooke said. "I didn't have my hands up or anything." The defenseman crashed into the boards, his leg seeming to hit the dasher as he tumbled. He flung off a glove in agony and lay on the ice for more than a minute as his unhappy teammates mingled at center ice with the Penguins, engaging in scrums that led to a pair of roughing minors for Montreal -- Scott Gomez and Travis Moen -- while only Mark Eaton was whistled for tangling with Moen. One hundred and one seconds later, Staal drifted through the slot, pumped faked to change the shooting angle and whistled a shot past the glove of Jaroslav Halak, who was leaning the wrong way.

The power-play goal was one of a franchise-record-tying four for the Penguins. After killing 32-of-33 penalties against Washington, the Canadiens penalty kill was, well, imperfect, allowing Pittsburgh to go four-for-four, all on back door plays or shots from the slot. Halak, who had stopped 131 of the last 134 Capitals shots, allowed three goals on eight shots and five on 20 before yielding to Price some five minutes into the third period.

Montreal should be able to mix and match defensemen the rest of the series with Jaroslav Spacek returning after missing the last four games of the first round because of an illness. But rookie P.K. Subban, called up for Game 6 in the first round, is going to have to play serious minutes, maybe 20 plus, unless Martin risks using power-play specialist Marc-André Bergeron as even strength. (Subban played 19:40 in Game 1. Bergeron, dressed as a fourth-line winger, played 18:21.) Meanwhile, Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma will have to some serious shuffling of his own. Staal, who has never missed a regular-season game due to injury and has played in 327-of-328 in his career, bumped with Subban in the neutral zone, returned to the bench but soon left for good midway through the second. Craig Adams and Max Talbot finished as the third and fourth centers, basically leaving the Penguins without a fourth-line right wing.

For a team upon whom the hockey gods had been smiling beatifically -- home ice guaranteed until the final with the elimination of the three top Eastern Conference seeds, no bête noire in New Jersey lurking down road -- this could prove to be even a more significant injury. The Penguins go three deep down the middle with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Staal, but Staal might be the most indispensible -- or at least the player whose role is the most difficult to replicate. Malkin can fill in for Crosby as a No. 1, and Stall can fill in for Malkin, but no one else can play against the top lines, work the penalty kill and be a fixture on the second-power play unit.

"He's a big part of our team," Crosby said of Staal. "It's not something that's easy to deal with but ... there's no sense feeling sorry for ourselves. There's nothing we can do. It's out of our control. If anything, it's an opportunity for someone else to play some key minutes and fill his role. Not an easy one to fill, but it's a great challenge."

So this is the bottom line: the Canadiens, with or without Markov, were unlikely to knock off a team that has shown that gritty and dependable is more effective than spectacular and fragile - like Washington.

The Penguins, meanwhile, have a better chance if not bigger goals. If Staal is missing for any length of time, his absence will be more telling.

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