MONTREAL -- After scoring a delightful third-period do-it-yourself goal, one cobbled from equal parts skill and determination, Maxim Lapierre grabbed his head almost in disbelief.
You don't often see that particular form of emoting in the rink. The gesture was more European Champions League soccer than Stanley Cup hockey, but Lapierre, a Canadiens center, can chew the scenery with the best of them. In the first-round series negotiated by the underdog Canadiens against Washington, he scored a goal and drew two diving penalties in Game 6.
This unusual combination should be immortalized as a Max Lapierre hat trick.
Anyway this is his balancing -- or some would say circus -- act. Right now the practical parts of his game have taken center stage over his klieg-light urges.
Again Montreal won an elimination game -- its fourth of the 2010 playoffs -- and the fingerprints of one Maxim Lapierre, Superstar Extraordinaire, were all over a 4-3 victory against the Penguins. Before Lapierre scored what would be the Game 6 winner, an unassisted goal at 11:03 of the third period on a play in which he would beat Pittsburgh defenseman Alex Goligoski twice, he was the fulcrum in a game-changing shift midway through the second period. This was Lapierre unchained, using his speed and strength and not his yapping mouth to get something accomplished.
"Usually I score on tip shots or from right in front of the net," the 25-year-old Lapierre said of his goal, in which he stormed down the left side and, instead of dipping behind the net for a wraparound, bulled to the front to beat goalie Marc-André Fleury. "That one was good for the confidence. (But) the only thing that matters is we won."
"He wasn't happy with his year," said Scott Gomez of Lapierre, who has three playoff goals but had just seven and was a minus 14 during the regular season. "Claude Lemieux said it best. You let it all go (because) this is when it all counts. We told Lappy that ... You forget how young he is. He's 100 miles an hour, on and off (the ice). I think it's a learning process. We joke around with him that he'll never get a call (from referees), but when he plays like that, he'll do something in this league. He lives and dies with the Habs. A true Montrealer ... He's just a guy who, with refs and the fans in other buildings, manages to rub people the wrong way."
Lapierre is among the leading antagonists in the NHL for his motor mouth and a seeming reluctance to back up his words, unlike, say Sidney Crosby, the Penguins captain who was the most voluble player on the ice -- certainly at the end of Game 6. As the final siren sounded, Crosby skated past and gave Montreal center Tomas Plekanec a firm albeit hardly vicious crosscheck, a gesture that drew a crowd near the boards. Crosby broke free from the scrum but before exiting the Bell Centre ice, he got into a protracted chirping session with Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges.
Crosby had been getting a rough ride, in the series and in the public prints. (One Montreal bugle had the effrontery to refer to him as Sid the Skid, a sneering tribute to his having gone without a goal in the first five games.) But his situation figured to improve in Game 6 without his nemesis, 6-foot-7, 241-pound Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill, who plays Newman to Crosby's Seinfeld. Gill, who had played against Crosby for 70 percent of the center's shifts, sustained a laceration to the back of his leg when Chris Kunitz inadvertently stepped on him in Game 5. The injury was significant enough that Gill had to miss the charter flight home Saturday night and wound up going commercial the following day, through Philadelphia. (Reportedly Gill was in row 21 of a 22-row regional jet. The good news: he had an aisle seat!)
Gill took the warm-up but couldn't go, forcing rookie P.K. Subban into the shutdown role with the resolute Gorges. Perhaps it was happenstance, but Crosby broke a goal drought that extended to Game 5 of the Ottawa series -- 170 shifts, 136:20 of ice time -- when he batted in a waist-high rebound at 7:22 of the first period to tie the score. Crosby would then set up Kris Letang for the Penguins' go-ahead goal on a power play a little more than five minutes into the second.
The slender Pittsburgh lead seemed moderately safe. The Canadiens were stuck in a rut and the Penguins were dominating down low, getting shots and subsequent rebounds on harried goalie Jaroslav Halak.
But in a series dominated by big names, it was Montreal's third line that changed the tenor of the match and, perhaps, the series.
Lapierre, Tom Pyatt and Dominic Moore didn't produce a point for their trouble, but they did cause absolute exhaustion in the middle of the second. They buzzed for almost a full minute against the line centered by Pittsburgh's Michael Rupp, forcing the Penguins into icing the puck out of desperation. With the Penguins stuck with the same players on the ice, Canadiens coach Jacques Martin sent out the fresh line of Gomez, Brian Gionta and Travis Moen, who hounded Pittsburgh into a second icing. Martin changed again, finally getting a goal when Mike Cammalleri -- he had two in Game 6 for a playoff-leading 11 -- took a pass from Andrei Kostitsyn and backhanded the puck stick-side past goalie Fleury to tie the score.
If the Fatigued Five -- Rupp, linemates Craig Adams and Mark Letestu and defensemen Jordan Leopold and Goligoski -- and had been out there any longer, they would have been eligible to vote in the next provincial election.
"That's huge," Pyatt said of the icing. "Allowing us to get fresh guys out there."
During the TV timeout that followed shortly after Cammalleri's goal, 21,273 in the Bell Centre stood and bellowed, a wall of sound that might have been heard a few blocks north on Ste. Catherine St. -- except the local constabulary had blocked off a stretch of the thoroughfare, fearing a little too much post-game exuberance from a city that knows its pucks and is practiced in the dark arts of hockey riots.
Three and a half minutes later, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, who returned after shaking the virus that had led to a nasty bout of vertigo that had kept him out since the third game of the first round, scored on a slap shot from just inside the blue line.
Spacek, Lapierre noted, "looked he was 18 again."
And Lapierre looked like he was 38, a veteran who has put childish things aside and seems as ready as anyone for a Game 7 Wednesday in Pittsburgh. Classic, anyone?