Much blame for Penguins, many kudos for Canadiens
Add my name to the growing list of those hailing the achievements of the Montreal Canadiens -- especially their tenacity that was needed to win two seventh games on the road. I will address that topic farther down, but some things need to be kept in perspective and the truth is that Pittsburgh Penguins did as much to lose their second-round series as the Canadiens did to win it.
Pittsburgh's goaltending in Game 7 and throughout the series was just shy of abysmal.
Fleury's only notable success was a 2-0 shutout in Game 3 in which his team was particularly strong in front of him while limiting the Habs to just 18 shots.
There appears these days to be some concern regarding Fleury and his game preparation and mental toughness. There were reports early in the playoffs of his racing to be on time for team meetings and that he didn't seem as focused as he was last season when both he and the Penguins played through some of his inconsistencies en route to winning the Cup.
But there's more.
The Canadiens rightly get credit for containing
Crosby had just one goal in the series -- hardly what one would expect from a player who had a 100-point regular season and is a finalist for league MVP. That goal came in Game Six while nemesis defenseman
Neither Crosby nor the Penguins ever recovered and he went on to play poorly in a game in which the captain and arguably the best clutch player in the league should be the leader. Malkin, whose career reputation in big games has been dogged by what appears to be a lack of motivation, did not score an even-strength goal in the series and was largely the problem in Pittsburgh's discombobulated power play. With Crosby melting down, there was a need for Malkin to step up and lead. Not only did he not rise to the occasion, he was a big part of the reason the Canadiens were able to dictate play on Pittsburgh's ice.
The Penguins appeared nervous at the start and downright panicked after the Canadiens' early goals. Instead of taking charge, Malkin seemed to be standing still as Montreal dominated play in the Pittsburgh zone. Pulling down an otherwise decent defensive corps,
Lastly, one could make an argument that Pittsburgh head coach
As for the Canadiens, well this says it all: the No. 8 seed, having taken down the No.1 of the regular season (Washington) and defending Stanley Cup champions (Pittsburgh) now awaits the winner of the battle of the sixth and seventh seeds in order to play for the Eastern Conference Championship.
That can't be an accident
A team put together on the fly last offseason (after 10 free agents hit the market) by a general manager (
None of the three were on the roster last season as Gainey overhauled the unit in an attempt to change the culture of a squad that seemed to care more about participating in Montreal's storied night life than winning when it mattered most.
Then there was the unlikeliest dynamic duo since Batman took in the Boy Wonder. The defensive pairing of
Crosby whined a lot about the perceived hooking, holding and blows he took in the series with the Canadiens, especially with Gill on the ice, but Crosby had only 17 shots in the series and five of them came in the failed Game 7. Clearly he was being shutdown via a commitment to defense that the Senators could not or would not make.
If you subscribe to the theory that "the rules are different in the playoffs" (something the NHL now repeatedly denies), you might have an argument. But the Canadiens employed the same tactics in shutting down
Crosby and, to some degree, Malkin ran the same plays they always run. Cammalleri and company, meanwhile, found different ways to the net and exploited Pittsburgh's defense and Fleury in ways that seemed to confuse the Penguins. Martin, before Game 7, said Cammalleri and Gionta had an "unbelievable knack for knowing where the seam is, knowing where the hole is and anticipating what they needed to do to get there."
There is a "knack" to that, but there is also something to be gained from studying video and the tendencies of the players you are up against. Montreal players did that. Can Washington and Pittsburgh players, who may have taken the Canadiens lightly, say the same?
And then there is Halak. The Montreal goalie turned aside 37 of 39 shots, including his usual number of "sick" saves on the best the Penguins put forth. Halak to date is unbeatable in elimination games (he's now 5-0 in these playoffs), posting a .960 save percentage. He is now well down the path walked by Montreal goaltending heroes including the iconic
Halak didn't just make 37 saves on shots outside the traditional scoring zones, he made them from close in and during six Pittsburgh power plays. Perhaps more impressively, he put up his numbers even though the Pittsburgh man-advantage units went four-for-four in the first game of the series and drove him from the net.
You can look long and hard for a "bad goal" by Halak, but outside of that understandable emotional letdown after beating the Capitals, you just can't find it. Even in the games he got beat, he was often the best player on the ice for either team. He was cool, calm, played within himself at all times and never gave up that "Fleury-like" goal you get off the Mister Softie truck. It's a trait that served Halak and his teammates well.
"That's what I'm there for," Halak said after his second consecutive mega-triumph. "Guys block shots, guys score goals, kill penalties, everybody on this team contributes to what we're doing, and I just do my part."
His teammates see it another way.
"Obviously we are not perfect," said Gill, "but he has bailed us out every time we weren't."
Every time! That alone may be the single biggest difference between the Canadiens and both the Penguins and the Capitals.
If you've got goaltending, you've got a chance to do anything, even what many consider to be impossible.
The Canadiens are playing to that level.