For some Pens, a sort of homecoming
MONTREAL -- Poor Max Talbot. Not only does the forward have to worry about helping his Pittsburgh Penguins defeat the pesky Montreal Canadiens but he also has to worry about possibly making good on his mother's gambling debts.
"My mom works in a high school, and she has bets with all these students and everything on whether the Habs will win. So, it is fun for us and our families," Talbot said Monday morning before the Penguins jetted off to Montreal for Games 3 and 4 of the deadlocked Eastern Conference semifinals series.
For Talbot and some of his teammates, this is more than just another playoff road trip, it is a kind of homecoming. Talbot, Pascal Dupuis, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang all grew up in or around the Montreal area.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby grew up an avid Montreal fan and played his junior hockey in Rimouski, Quebec, where he learned to speak French so he could communicate with fans. His father, Troy, was a draft pick of the Canadiens back in 1984.
This past summer, the Stanley Cup was a regular visitor to the Montreal area as the Quebec-born players hosted parties with the trophy and the hometown Penguins were feted as conquering heroes. It was as though having the Penguins and their core of French Canadian players win the Cup was the next best thing to having the beloved Habs win it.
Now, of course, the Penguins come to town as the hated enemy, a threat to a Canadiens team that will always hold a special place in the hearts of Quebec hockey fans.
Talbot was asked whether he was worried about having to cover his mother's bets if the unthinkable happened and the underdog Canadiens upset the defending Stanley Cup champs.
"She's cool with it. She can take the heat. She likes to do it," Talbot said. "What is fun about Montreal is that you look at last year and we felt like [all of] Quebec was behind the Penguins and now you have the Penguins against the Habs, so it is special for the fans."
Fleury joked that he's not sure just what side of the rooting fence his friends and family will be on when the puck drops Tuesday.
"Well, I hope my family and friends are still cheering for my team," he said. "Everybody's such a big fan of the Canadiens back home. Everybody's been nice to me so far. I think it should be interesting and fun to play."
The Penguins aren't strangers to playing in Montreal. They face the Habs four times a year in the regular season, with two of those games in the raucous Bell Centre. But there is something about coming home to face the host team in the playoffs that gives the proceedings an entirely new level of emotion and drama.
"We've talked about it. We've talked about it for a lot of guys, this is going home," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "But I think we talk about it more because it's Montreal and there is the history of the Canadiens."
He noted that no one asked him during last year's Cup finals what it was like for him to return to Michigan, where he grew up, and face his childhood team, the Detroit Red Wings. Likewise, there wasn't a big deal made about the players from southern Ontario who grew up watching the Red Wings.
With Francophone players, though, it's different. The distinctness of Quebec's society, the language and culture and place that hockey holds in it, suggests this homecoming is far more meaningful than your standard, "Oh I grew up there and now I'm going back to play hockey there" homecoming.
Both Talbot and Fleury talked about the memories of watching the Canadiens win the Cup back in 1993. It is a moment that remains frozen in time for many Habs fans, in large part because it marked the last championship for the storied franchise and the last Cup won by a Canadian team.
"I think I was old enough to understand; I was watching hockey a lot," said Fleury, who was 8 years old in 1993. "Patrick Roy was a guy I loved to watch, and it was pretty special to see them win the Cup that year. So I think it'll be fun to be there, personally, play a game in there. It will be exciting."
Even now, Talbot still follows how the Canadiens are doing, and when he's home in the offseason, he listens to sports talk shows endlessly debate what will happen with the Canadiens in the coming season. Habits ingrained in childhood are hard to break even when you have your own Stanley Cup ring.
"It's gonna be special, that's for sure," Talbot said. "For us, you grow up watching the Canadiens, and even during the season, you kind of watch them because you are used to it. When you go back to Montreal in the summer, you watch the talk shows about what signing they are going to do and everything. So, you obviously know the team.
"Having a chance to play them in the playoffs is going to be crazy. It's going to be fun, and it's going to be exciting. But, at the same time, it's another hockey game. We are going to have to control our emotions."
All these players who are returning home will have family and friends watching, and the series will dominate news reports, the Internet, radio and television. It will be a zoo. How will guys such as Talbot and Dupuis, who have been so good thus far in the playoffs, react to extra attention and pressure?
What about Fleury, who has had a few ups and downs this spring? Will he rise to the occasion as he has so many other times for this Penguins team, or will the weight of playing at home in this series become a distraction for him?
If the dream of every Quebec minor hockey player is to win the Stanley Cup in the bleu, blanc et rouge, then surely beating the Canadiens in the playoffs would be the next best thing.
"There are certain aspects of it. I think the atmosphere in the city and the building is unique and something that we have to be aware of," Bylsma said. "And the building's loud, and we know that. We've talked about it, we're aware of it. We make adjustments or we talk about the emotions based on certain buildings, and we're aware it's going to be pretty crazy there."
Veteran Bill Guerin has played in Montreal a couple of times in his long NHL career and has a sense of what awaits the local boys.
"I think the guys who are from the Montreal area are excited to go back, but being excited and being ready are two different things. I believe our guys are ready," he said. "Going to Montreal is a great opportunity for us. I've played there in the playoffs two or three times now, and it's an amazing building to be in. It's going to be a great experience for everyone, and we can't wait to get up there. It's businesslike, but it's definitely a good experience for everybody."
A playoff series is always about managing emotions and staying grounded, and there is certainly a fine line between avoiding the consequences of those emotions that will accompany this team to Montreal and embracing the experience, turning it into an advantage.
"I think that there is something special about playoff hockey for a lot of the reasons, and one of them is -- and it's a big one -- road buildings are crazy," Bylsma said. "They're out of this world, and you have a tough time talking on the bench. The atmosphere in the building -- and this one will be much like [that] -- is going to be one of those experiences.
"Sometimes we lament about Game 48 [of the regular season]. I'm going to enjoy the atmosphere in Montreal. You have to relish in playing in situations like this, and we're going to treat it as such."
On Tuesday night, we'll find out just what kind of homecoming those one-time Canadiens devotees are going to have, or, more importantly, what kind of homecoming they're going to deliver to the fans in Montreal.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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