Cinderella Habs facing tougher test
PITTSBURGH -- History tells us it would be foolish to pronounce a winner or loser after one game of an NHL playoff series.
Yet, after the Pittsburgh Penguins easily handled the Cinderella Montreal Canadiens by a 6-3 count to open their Eastern Conference semifinals series Friday night, there was the definite smell of pumpkin in the air. And we swore we saw some mice running around the media area, although at aging Mellon Arena, that might not be all that unusual.
The point is, coming off an extraordinary upset of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals, the Canadiens were informed in no uncertain terms Friday night that the defending Stanley Cup champs are going to provide them with something entirely different.
The Penguins spotted the visitors an early goal by rookie defenseman P.K. Subban but then scored five of the next six goals, four of them on the power play, to easily handle the road-weary Canadiens.
"They went around us, they went through us," Montreal defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron said. "They found every possible way to make it happen, so good for them. I guess we're going to adjust. It's going to be a long series."
How long this series lasts will be determined by a number of factors, perhaps the biggest of which is the health of two top players who were lost to injury in Game 1.
Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov went awkwardly into the boards when he was hit by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke and seemed to be favoring his right leg as he was helped from the ice. He did not return. Habs coach Jacques Martin said the team's top blueliner would be evaluated Saturday, but it did not look good.
"It's a huge loss for us," said defenseman Hal Gill. "We need to step up and fill some big shoes with him out."
The Penguins likewise were contemplating the future without one of their big three centers, as Jordan Staal left the game midway through the second period after getting tangled up with Subban. He reportedly was seen leaving the building on crutches, although Penguins coach Dan Bylsma declined to discuss the injury.
"He's a huge part of our team. Probably the best third center in the league," Pittsburgh forward Maxime Talbot said. "Obviously, just finishing the game without him is a big loss for us."
If the loss of key players is a wash after Game 1, it would be the only thing that remains equal heading into Game 2 on Sunday afternoon.
Of the eight teams that went up 1-0 in their first-round series, only three -- Vancouver, Philadelphia and Montreal -- went on to victory. Yet Game 1 provided an opportunity to try to figure out just how the Habs did what they did against Washington and assess whether their storybook trail might continue against Pittsburgh.
When the Canadiens began that long road back from a 3-1 series deficit against the Capitals, they received spectacular goaltending, timely scoring and terrific play from their special teams.
They also developed a mindset, a protective shell if you will, that allowed them not to waver even when the Capitals outshot them by wide margins. It was if they intuited that they were involved in a battle of wills in which they had more firepower.
Maybe it's hindsight. Maybe it was so.
But what Game 1 of this new series tells us is the Canadiens now face a team with a vastly different hockey IQ.
Take the power play.
As the Washington series went along and the Capitals continued to pound away, the Canadiens blocked more and more shots, and the frustration level grew and grew until the power play was almost a curse for the Caps, who went 1-for-33 with the man advantage. The Penguins, however, learned from the Caps' frustration and did not blast away in Game 1, but rather waited and worked to find clear shots with the man advantage.
"It's huge. It's huge because you know how [Jaroslav] Halak was so, so good and so dominant, so it's nice to have a couple of goals on him to start the series," Talbot said. "And then, after you look at Washington only having one goal on the power play, we had four tonight. Not that it's going to stay like that all series because they're obviously going to make adjustments. But I think we came out strong on the power play, moving the puck and getting some quality chances, and that was in the game plan."
Bylsma estimated that Sergei Gonchar changed his shooting angle three times before his hard shot tied the score on a power play in the first period. Staal cut across the middle and pump-faked and kept moving laterally before he ripped a high shot past first-round hero Halak to give the Pens a 2-1 lead on their second power-play marker.
Kris Letang likewise waited patiently after taking a Sidney Crosby pass before ripping a shot past Halak to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead in the second period, forcing the Habs to chase the game the rest of the evening.
"I thought we did a good job, not just blowing shots through guys, but we had our heads up and we were conscious of our shooting lanes," Bylsma said.
By the end of the evening, Martin had gone back to the same pattern he employed early in the Washington series, lifting Halak after he allowed the fifth Penguins goal and installing Carey Price in hopes of changing the momentum. It would be a major shock if Halak, who denied the Capitals on 131 of their last 134 shots, were not back in goal Sunday. But if the Canadiens are looking to catch lightning in an ice rink twice in a row, Game 1 should be ample illustration that midnight is at hand.
This Penguins victory reminded us of so many of the 35 postseason victories they have rolled up since 2008, all but three of which we've seen in person. The personnel has evolved and changed since the start of the 2008 playoffs. The coach is different. Yet there is a certain constancy to how they play, not like the tsunami the potent Capitals threatened to be but never became, but rather something that is somehow more wearing, more wearying to play against.
True, the power play struck for four goals and Crosby made two brilliant passes to set up two of them. But checking center Craig Adams converted a lovely Pascal Dupuis pass to make it 4-2 just 3:09 after the Habs had made it 3-2 in the second period. After Dupuis scored the overtime winner in Game 6 to eliminate Ottawa, he said he thought it meant the Penguins were back.
Game 1 on Friday does little to suggest this isn't the case.
"You look at the atmosphere here after the game. I don't think we're satisfied with the way we played because we made a couple of mistakes, they outshot us. There's a lot of things we could have done better," Talbot said. "Yes, we won this game, it's nice to have Game 1 under our belt, but we know that we're going to need to adjust some things and execute better."
The Penguins weren't perfect, of course, but they didn't need to be. This should be a sobering thought for a Canadiens squad whose ride in the glass chariot might be coming to an abrupt conclusion against Pittsburgh.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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