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Habs find way, pull even with Pens

The mathematical progression was obvious for the Montreal Canadiens, a team that defies logic but not arithmetic: six shots in the first period and three shots in the second period, which surely meant one and a half shots were coming in the third period.

As a cockeyed dream for a 25th Stanley Cup continued in Game 4, it would happen precisely that way.

And if you never have seen half a shot before ... well, you clearly missed BrianGionta's winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Maxim Lapierre, superstar extraordinaire, took the Canadiens' legitimate shot, a wraparound that beat Penguins goalie Marc-André Fleury 127 seconds into the third period.

Then about a minute and a half later came the dollop of pixie dust that the Canadiens -- outshot and outmanned and out of their mind with a stubborn willingness to get in the way of shots -- needed to stay with the Penguins, a team whose path to a third straight Stanley Cup final should be strewn with rose petals.

Skating down the right wing, Gionta simply flung the puck into the middle of the ice, maybe five feet outside the crease, where vulcanized rubber met KrisLetang's right skate. The puck changed directions, slipping past the flummoxed goalie and into the Pittsburgh net.

Montreal 3, Penguins 2. Disbelief, limitless.

The Canadiens actually would shovel 16 shots at Pittsburgh in the final period, but it hardly mattered after the opening flurry. Their defensive poise, which frayed badly at even-strength for the first time in the series, returned, goalie Jaroslav Halak made a sprawling save on Sidney Crosby with about 10½ minutes left and Evgeni Malkin couldn't cash a breakaway with four minutes to go. This would be Pittsburgh's first road loss of the spring.

"If you'd said at the start it'd be two out of three going into Pittsburgh (for Game 5 Saturday)," Mike Cammalleri said, " I would have said, 'Why not?'"

Now here is more math that works in Montreal's favor: although the Penguins have just five goals in the past three games (including an empty netter), 11 Penguins have scored in the series. Not one of them is Crosby.

Crosby was back on the score sheet after two fallow matches -- although, really, he was fine in Game 3 -- but his assist on the second Pittsburgh goal was thin gruel for the player who stormed through the regular season with 51 goals and made the first round against Ottawa into his pet project. He was hardly invisible in Game 4 -- five shots, strong on the puck around the boards and near the net -- but again missing regular right wing Bill Guerin, he failed to have a breakout game.

"Our backchecking has been pretty good," said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill, who, with Josh Gorges, has been charged with limiting Crosby. "We've been putting back pressure on them and forcing them into [the defense]. They have a lot of crossing patterns and do a lot of different things. Not a lot of straight one-on-ones. There's a lot going on, and we've been good at picking it up."

Certainly Gill and colleagues were after the rocky first period, anyway. For the first time in the series, the Canadiens slipped off message. Maybe it was the curious officiating. (To the 21,273 drama critics at the Bell Centre, the handiwork of Paul Devorski and Eric Furlatt made it appear that the Canadiens were playing five-on-seven.) Or maybe it was Pittsburgh's superior high-end skill. But no matter the lens through which you viewed the wild period, much of Montreal's difficulty was self-inflicted.

When the culprit was a rookie like P.K. Subban, who was force-fed 22 minutes in Game 4 because of the season-ended knee injury to Andrei Markov and the continuing absence of Jaroslav Spacek, you figured it was about time he finally started to act his age. He is a highly-caffeinated defenseman whose play can look like a Barnum & Bailey high wire act, but when Ruslan Fedotenko took him down at his own blue line to spring Max Talbot on a breakaway, he had no whistle and no chance. "Today was a learning day for me," Subban said, "and I've got to get better." Talbot -- "Little bit bad hands," a smiling Malkin said famously of his teammate last year during the Stanley Cup final -- deked, went to the backhand and slipped it through Halak's pads to tie the score just 54 seconds after TomPyatt's soft shot from an acute angle along the boards crept through Fleury's five hole.

But even Gill, who justifies his contract in the playoffs, looked on edge. He made two careless passes, dead giveaways on everything but the official scoresheet, took a soft holding penalty on Pascal Dupuis that led to a Penguins power-play goal and slashed Crosby's stick to earn another penalty as the period expired.

The Penguins were outshooting Montreal, 15-6, after the first, but this wasn't the controlled burn typical of the Canadiens, who rope-a-dope until they can find a way to win. This was a wildfire they seemed incapable of containing.

"I think we got off our game worrying about [the refereeing] too much," said Mathieu Darche, who would set up Lapierre's goal after being dressed but never setting a skate on the ice in Game 3. "First two periods, we weren't very good, but we looked at the positives being only down a goal. As soon as we got the early goal in the third, the adrenaline rush that the crowd gives you in this building ... I haven't experienced that very often. It forces you to keep attacking."

The crowd took an exception to a tripping penalty on Darche with 11:05 remaining in the third period, letting rip a freshet of soft drinks cups and the Go Habs Go towels that had been handed out at the doors. While showing tolerably good arms, it still was a pity from a sophisticated hockey crowd. If the Canadiens can manage to keep their wits about them throughout the playoffs, the customers should, too.

No matter how this second-round series finishes, the only people in Montreal throwing in the towels will be fans.

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