Habs keeping Big Three in check
MONTREAL -- We have been saying this for three seasons now: You cannot beat the Pittsburgh Penguins unless you can find a way to control the Big Three.
Well, guess what?
The Montreal Canadiens, the kings of the playoff rope-a-dope, have now turned this Eastern Conference semifinal series into a best-of-three by doing just that.
The Canadiens kept captain Sidney Crosby from scoring for the fourth straight game in this series and denied Evgeni Malkin a goal for the third time in the same span en route to a 3-2 win Thursday night that tied this series at two games apiece.
The third member of the Big Three, Jordan Staal, who was playing in his first game since undergoing surgery on his foot last Friday night, was also held without a goal as the Canadiens continued to control this series playing at even strength.
In a performance that borders on the miraculous given the disparity in talent and lack of scoring depth from the Canadiens, Montreal has managed to outscore Pittsburgh 7-3 at even strength, not counting empty-net goals. Neither Crosby nor Malkin has registered a point while at even strength in the series.
On Thursday night, in a game that could have given the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, Pittsburgh outplayed the Canadiens for most of two periods and then blinked, allowing two even-strength goals in a 1:33 span early in the third period, and never recovered.
It doesn't matter that Brian Gionta's winning goal was really a cross-ice pass that caromed off Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang. It doesn't matter the Penguins poured 35 shots at Habs playoff hero Jaroslav Halak.
What does matter is the Canadiens have somehow found a way to keep hanging around by nullifying two of the game's biggest stars. If they can continue to do so, this series is a toss-up instead of the mismatch it looked like on paper.
"We turned the puck over inside the blue line in a tie game and they get rewarded for capitalizing on it," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "This time of year, it doesn't really matter how you score."
Orpik insisted the Penguins didn't feel they had squandered an opportunity when they outshot Montreal 26-9 through two periods and led only 2-1.
"No, that's the way it was last game too [a 2-0 win for Pittsburgh]. They rely a lot on Halak and they played a good team game," Orpik said. "They try to frustrate you, they pack five guys in the slot; it's tough to get good chances. It was exactly how we expected it."
At this stage of the playoffs, maybe we shouldn't be surprised the Montreal Canadiens continue to tap into a hidden reserve of resolve. They did so in the first round when they trailed the Washington Capitals 3-1 and they somehow managed to keep Alex Ovechkin and the league's most potent power play at bay.
In this series, when they desperately needed to get some depth scoring to stay in the hunt Thursday night, they got it. Tom Pyatt scored his first of the playoffs just 2:34 into the game, sneaking a weak shot from the left side through Marc-Andre Fleury to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead. Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit drew assists, their first points of the series. Then, early in the third period, Mathieu Darche helped set up Maxim Lapierre for a wraparound goal that tied the score at 2 at the 2:07 mark. It was just Lapierre's second goal and second point of the playoffs.
"I think probably the biggest factor was we used more depth tonight," Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. "We used more people and we were fresher. I think after two periods, we hadn't really overextended anybody. I tried to go with four lines, and you're going to get different amounts of time for certain guys with killing penalties and the power plays. Certain people are going to get a little more, but I think we got some contributions tonight from everybody."
No one illustrated that more than Darche, who dressed for Game 3 but didn't play a single shift.
"We got that dirty goal in the third and it was an adrenaline rush you don't experience often," Darche said. "That energy from the crowd forces you to keep attacking. Other games, we've been back on our heels, but we stayed on our toes tonight."
As for not getting on the ice in the last game, the winger admitted it was tough to swallow.
"It's always tough to dress and not play, but the most important thing is the team. You don't want to be a distraction, but I've got pride. As an athlete, I want to contribute," said Darche. "It was nice to be able to reward [Martin] by making a contribution tonight."
In some ways, getting these final two victories will be a test of wills.
The Habs will be buoyed by their successes against the Penguins' top players and dealing the defending champs their first road loss of the playoffs.
"We have nothing to lose. We're not even supposed to be here," said Halak, who denied Malkin a third-period breakaway and managed to smother a golden Crosby chance at the side of the net during a power play later in the frame.
"No one gave us a chance to go through the first round," Halak said. "Even in the second round, everybody thought it was going to be easy and we would lose four straight, but here we are. It is 2-2 and every game from now on is going to be huge."
For the Penguins, it's about believing in their game plan and believing that ultimately their top players will rise to the occasion. Crosby, who had five shots on goal in Game 4 after directing just one on net in each of the previous two games, acknowledged he wished he had been able to deliver on this night, but insisted he's not frustrated.
"I think you always feel like that. Whether I have eight [goals] at this point and its 2-2 [in the series] or whether I have none," Crosby said. "You try to make sure you are doing your part. I wouldn't change anything. Honestly, I wouldn't change what I am doing out there. All you try to do is try to do the right things and get the results."
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said he liked the offensive push from his whole team and thought it was better than what he had seen in Game 3.
"I thought, tonight, everyone on our team did a better job in the offensive zone. We got pucks around the goaltender and some chances," Bylsma said. "Those are the opportunities that I don't think we did as good a job in other games of getting. We had those opportunities, we've got to keep on that, keep focusing, keep getting people there and looking for those chances [and be] a little more opportunistic when they do come.
"I think Sidney, his line, in the power play, was in the offensive zone doing the things we need him to do and he needs to do to get those chances. And we have to stay focused on that and get even better in those areas."
Historically, Crosby, Malkin and Staal have delivered the goods in these situations. It's how they became Stanley Cup champs.
There's no reason to suggest this series won't end with more of the same. Unless, of course, the Canadiens have truly stumbled upon a master plan to prevent that from happening.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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