Thursday, May 13, 2010

Canadiens-Penguins: Pittsburgh Folds as Habs Advance to Conference Finals

Unbelievable. Can you believe it?

Incredibly, unbelievably, unthinkablely the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-2, in what was the last game ever at Mellon Arena.

The victory clinched the best-of-seven series for the underdog Habs, and sends them to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1993—the year of their last Stanley Cup victory.

The Pens looked nervous and disorganized early in the game as they took bad penalties, missed defensive assignments, and let in bad goals.

The result was a 4-0 Habs lead early in the game.

Despite scoring twice to make it a 4-2 game and having several power play opportunities, the Pens couldn't complete a comeback and the Habs took the game 5-2.

The Canadiens got goals from Brian Gionta (2), Michael Cammalleri—his 12th or the playoffs in 14 games—Dominic Moore—he scored in the last Game Seven too—and Travis Moen. The Pens responded with goals by Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal.

Final Score: Habs 5 - Pens 2. Habs win the best-of-seven series 4-3.

While I usually write about what certain players did well and what others did not do so well, I want to focus on the Habs as a whole today.

The Canadiens are playing like a team right now. Like one collective unit. To a man, the Habs have everyone pulling in the same direction and the ones who aren't are either healthy scratches or see little to no ice time.

While we all know that the Canadiens still need eight more wins if they are going to win the Stanley Cup and that doing so if far from a foregone conclusion, this team is eerily similar to the one that won it all in 1993.

In '93, the 102 point Habs played the 104 point the Quebec Nordiques in the first round of the playoffs.

After falling behind 2-0 in that series, something changed for the Canadiens.

The team seemed to come together in a way that they had never done over the course of that season. As such, they started playing like one five-man unit no matter who was on the ice.

While they had their scoring leaders in Kirk Muller, Vincent Damphousse, and Brian Bellows, they were, to a large degree, a team that scored by committee.

Led by the outstanding goaltending of Patrick Roy, the Canadiens seemed to have a new hero emerging every night with memorable goals by Gilbert Dionne, Benoit Brunet, Guy Carbonneau, and others.

Once they had turned the corner against the Nordiques, the Habs never looked back. They had a confidence in their abilities that was unwavering and it led them to the Promised Land.

This year, we are seeing shades of the same phenomenon.

Since going down 3-1 in their first round series against the Washington Capitals, something has changed with this team and it starts with the coaching.

As much as I have criticized Jacques Martin's rigidness over the course of the season, he has been employing a very different methodology since Game Five against the Caps.

No longer does he just roll four lines and give everyone a chance, but Coach Martin does not hesitate to shorten his bench and reward players who are playing well on any given night.

This is evidenced by the over 29 minutes of ice-time that rookie sensation P.K. Subban saw in Game Six versus the Pens.

Also like the team in '93, the 2010 Habs are led by an outstanding goaltender. While his counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, was horrible last night and let in three bad goals, Jaroslav Halak was called upon to do his part in the third period with the score 4-2.

As the Pens pressed on the power play Halak stoned Sidney Crosby and then a few shift later Evgeni Malkin from in close.

Like the '93 team, the Canadiens' scoring this year is lead by a handful of players—Cammalleri, Gionta, Scott Gomez, and Tomas Plekanec. Also like the '93 team, the current edition is getting timely contributions from the supporting cast—Maxim Lapierre has three goals, Dominic Moore has three goals, Travis Moen has two goals, and Tom Pyatt has one goal.

However the most important factor in the Habs recent success is that this team clearly believes, when many others do not. They have a solid dressing room and, like when at war, each man is sacrificing for the other.

The result so far, has been that their combination of structure and cohesiveness has allowed them to compete with and get the better of superior skilled opponents.

We won't know who the Canadiens third round opponent is until tomorrow night's Game Seven between the Bruins and the Flyers is over.

I think that way this team is playing, it almost makes no difference who their opponent is because the Canadiens believe. They believe in themselves and in each other and feel that they can compete with any team in the league.

The way they are playing right now, I'd have to agree. The Canadiens are so tight that I believe that they'll play well against any opponent.

Whether they win or not going forward, remains to be seen and winning a potential 25th Stanley Cup—as some are starting to talk about—is still a long way away.

But suffice it to say that after pulling off two of the most stunning upsets of our generation over the first two rounds, I have two words for you all:

I believe.


Gainey's looking pretty good right now. Admittedly I was one of the nay-sayers. One of the @#$% talkers. Now, I wont beat myself up for doubting the moves he made, because clearly this is a man that out-smarts most of us when it comes to hockey, but I will say this. Congratulations Bob! This is a real TEAM! You found a bunch of guys willing to go to war for each other.
In Bob we Trust!

I was listening to a radio show this morning where the host, not a Habs fan, who had predicted Montreal would get gutted first by the Caps (wrong) and then by the Pens (now he has to shave his head), asked if the Habs beat the Pens or if the Pens beat the Pens. This irritates me to no end. Even TSN, hardly a pro-Habs group, realized what Montreal did last night, even if Sid and the rest of the critics are unwilling to admit it.

The Habs shut down the big 3 - Crosby, Staal and Malkin. With our wingers clearly superior to theirs, we were able to parlay an effective strategy into a series win. If the defense had not done their job - and that includes the forwards who played a strong role - that wouldn't have happened. We did it to the Caps too, when we shut down Ovi's line. And yet, there are critics today who continue to argue that the Habs got lucky because their 2 rivals didn't or wouldn't step up to the puck. It's really irritating, especially as I am - as you well know - a harsh critic of Jacques Martin and his system.

Despite my dislike of the man and his system, I'm forced to admit that it's working. His defensive strategy has suffocated the offensive output of 2 of the NHL's strongest teams to the point where it's completely ridiculous not to give him props. He's got the team buying into it and executing it perfectly, and that's a large part of their continued success, along with their newly minted brotherhood. If I can admit it, why the heck can't the so-called experts - all of whom were wrong wrong wrong. Heck, I predicted the Pens in 6, so today I'm eating my share of crow as well. JM has helped to build a real team, and I have to give him props for that.

Oh and Sidney - shut up and go away now. At least Brooks Orpik was man enough to suck it up and say the Habs deserved credit for what they did right, as opposed to harping on what the Pens did wrong. I suppose Les Boys will have to win the Cup before they'll get the credit they deserve from some of the pundits.

I did think the Pens were nervous, and there were at least 2 glaring defensive errors that led to goals (Moore's and Moen's), but it was the Habs who kept their composure (except for the latter half of the 2nd) and played their game and system. So while the Pens didn't do themselves any favours, the Habs earned that win last night. The Pens didn't exactly roll over and hand them game 7 on a silver platter.

As for the Habs next opponent, if I was forced - at gunpoint (which is what it would take) - to pick between the Bruins and the Flyers, I'd pick the Teddy Bears, if only for old time's sake.

Pat: I agree. I was a huge ditractor of Gainey's too and at the end of the day, this team WAS pretty crappy during the season. What has happened now is that they have come together at the right time.

I don't know that Gainey necessarily thought this would be the result, but I think that he brought on board proven winners in an attempt to bottle that magic.

Right now, it seems to be working and I, for one, am ecstatic!

Tyg, you are SO right.

Look, at the end of the day I, personally, couldn't care less if people are detracting from the Habs' success.

What is important, is that they are winning and they are playing well and playing, as Pat said above, like a team.

Sure, the Habs got outshot, but 90% of those shots were 1st chances and from the outside or the point. The Habs simply dominate their slot and allow so few second chances.

THAT is why they are winning.

They shut down Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom in Round 1 and Crosby, Malkin and Staal in round two.

That is quite likely four or five of THE BEST PLAYERS in the world.

That's not luck, that is a pattern.

As for Crosby, I have to say that I was extremely disappointed with his post-game interview in which he was essentially saying that he feels the Habs "system" is not sustainable.

"We'll see..." He must have said that three times in a one minute span.

Dude, that is classless and NOT leadership quality. I saw Lemieux, Gretzky, and Messier many times in post-lost interviews and never once would any of them do anything but take the high road.

Even if you think it, you can't say it to the press.

Disappointing, to me, and a reminder that Crosby IS only 23. He's still a kid and, I think, has some maturing to do.

I'd agree that choosing between the B's and Flyers is like choosing between being shot or stabbed to death, I would also choose the B's.

The B's are beat up and they can't score. The Flyers, on the other hand, are surging and they have brutish savages on every line of their team. They will inflict pain on the Habs and I don't look forward to that.

Pat, what do you think?

Suivant, NEXT!!! As good as it feels to have made it through, beating two of the best teams in the NHL in the process, I can't decide whether Boston or Philly is a better fit for us. Neither play a style similar to the Pens or Caps. Smash-em-up hockey, or smash-em-up dirty hockey? What do you prefer? I think Philly is going to be more prone to taking bad penalties, and I think that could play in our favor. Also, goal tending has been a bit of an issue for Philly this year. I'm kind of on the fence. Last point though, if its Boston, their fans will be coming to Montreal home games in hoards. Do we really need the smell of all that chowder?

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