- Scott Burnside, NHL
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MONTREAL -- We have known the Pittsburgh Penguins to be a team of destiny. And we have seen what a team of destiny can do, winning twice on the road in Game 7s last spring, including the deciding game of the Stanley Cup finals.
But does destiny have a best-before date? Does destiny run out, fade away?
If so, have we seen just that before our very eyes?
What happens, for instance, when the Penguins meet another team with destiny on its mind in a one-game, winner-take-all showdown?
In the wake of the Montreal Canadiens' stirring 4-3 win in Game 6 here Monday night, their third straight win in an elimination game this spring, we are about to find out.
One thing is certain: There is room for only one team on the train to Stanley Cup glory and one team only. And sometime Wednesday night, all the talk of destiny and glory will come to a sudden and crashing end for one of these two teams.
"When you go back to the first series, we were down 3-1, and same thing right now, we were down 3-2 and we didn't give up and we are not giving up," said Montreal netminder Jaroslav Halak, who stopped 34 of 37 shots to put the Canadiens into their second straight Game 7 showdown. "We are going to Pittsburgh. It's us or them. So it's going to be do or die for both of the teams, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be a great game."
Wednesday night in Pittsburgh has all the makings of a classic. If the Penguins cannot find a way to shake loose of Montreal, it will be the final game in Mellon Arena, and what a strange, bitter way to close out that arena's history.
"Clearly everyone in the building at Mellon will understand what is at stake -- you are either moving on or you are going home," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "I think that is one of the great challenges of playoff hockey: the refocus, depending on whether you have won or lost. That's the challenge for both teams. We know what it is at stake. We have to go home at Mellon Arena and play our best game and be ready for that."
All series long, we have waited for the Penguins to exert themselves, to use their experience and superior skill to somehow brush the Canadiens to the side. Yet, even as the Canadiens lose key personnel, as they get pushed closer to the brink, they seem to somehow grow stronger.
Our colleague Pierre LeBrun asked during Game 6, at what point do we start thinking of this Canadiens team in terms of 1993, that magical spring when every hurdle was sailed over, every adversity met with aplomb, every overtime game a sure victory?
And why not ask that question out loud as we prepare for Game 7? When the Canadiens lost Hal Gill in the third period of Game 5 and he was a late scratch for Game 6, it seemed the moment would be right for the Penguins to impose their will and move on. They did so in the first round against Ottawa, trailing 3-0 in Game 6 before coming back to win in overtime and advance.
Just 1:13 into Monday's game, the Pens gave up the first goal when Mike Cammalleri sailed a high shot past a surprised Marc-Andre Fleury. But following a trend, the Penguins responded. Sidney Crosby, he of the prodigious goal-scoring drought, banged home a waist-high puck to tie it with his first in seven games.
When Kris Letang snuck a soft shot under Halak's arm on the power play to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead early in the second (the first bad goal Halak has allowed in this series, by the way), you wondered if this was the moment when the scales would finally tilt the Penguins' way. They dominated several power plays. They rang a couple of shots off the post. Yet they could not deliver the death blow. A team that has its names engraved on the Stanley Cup, a team that puts other teams away, couldn't do it.
Instead, the Penguins became confused on a potential icing call and ended up being hemmed in their own zone. Then, there was an actual icing call, and then a second, and then it seemed as though the air went out of the Penguins' sails. The Canadiens pressed. After a turnover at the Pittsburgh blue line, Maxime Talbot lost sight of Cammalleri, who took an Andrei Kostitsyn pass and whipped a backhand past Fleury to tie the score at 2.
Just 2:30 later defenseman Jaroslav Spacek, playing for the first time in 10 games after battling what is believed to be an inner ear/vertigo problem, snuck a slap shot from the point through a maze of players to give the Canadiens a 3-2 lead through two periods.
The Bell Centre was a madhouse. The crowd was so noisy, the public-address announcer had to wait until after a television timeout to announce the assists on the Cammalleri goal.
The mythology of home-ice advantage has been well-documented this spring. Statistically speaking, it doesn't exist. Yet try and tell that to the Habs and their faithful fans on this night.
"You hear so much about it," said Scott Gomez, who drew an assist on the Spacek goal. "A lot of us have been through some big games ... been in a lot of arenas, been to a lot of sporting events, but people here, definitely we're proud of our fans."
Maxim Lapierre, a player who took not one but two diving penalties in one game earlier this season, delivered a virtuoso performance, picking up a loose puck on the left side, driving down the boards and cutting to the center untouched before scoring through a crowd at the 11:03 mark of the third period to give the Canadiens a two-goal lead.
It would turn out to be the winner with Bill Guerin scoring with 1:14 left.
So, even with Crosby scoring, even with another Penguins power-play goal, even without Gill in the lineup, the Canadiens found a way to take this series to the limit. The Canadiens again won the five-on-five battle, scoring all four goals at even strength. They again found a hero in Spacek, who helped keep the Habs' dream alive for at least one more night.
"I know I can compete with these guys," Spacek said. "It's Game 6 in the second round, the Stanley Cup champions; it's not easy, elimination around the corner. You just want to go out there and bring your A-game, and I try my best. Happy face finally. I was grumpy for a couple of weeks."
And so, we return to Pittsburgh for one final, improbable contest, just as we returned to Washington two weeks ago for one final, improbable contest. For much of this Canadiens journey, we have waited for reality, the sound of the pin popping the balloon. Maybe it happens in Game 7 on Wednesday, or maybe this is what destiny looks like up close.
But no one in the Canadiens' room is pinching himself at this stage.
"No, not at all. For us, it is the reality," Cammalleri said. "If you pinch yourself, you are beat. I remember when you first come into the league, if you start sitting around and staring in awe and catching flies, you'll be out pretty quick.
"Now, we belong and we're having fun. Now, we have an opportunity to go knock these guys off in Game 7, so let's go enjoy it."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
10dScott Burnside and Craig Custance