- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PITTSBURGH -- In the end, it was difficult to say what was more shocking: the Montreal Canadiens' Destiny Express rolling right through Pittsburgh, or the manner in which the defending Stanley Cup champions were beaten like rented mules at the start of this do-or-die tilt.
A Penguins team that had been so poised in last season's run to the Stanley Cup, so steadfast in the face of adversity, looked like a week-old Primanti Brothers sandwich through the first 25 minutes of play in Wednesday's Game 7. Pittsburgh gave up four straight goals to Montreal, which then coasted to a 5-2 victory and a berth in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1993.
"It was awful. That's how you explain it," Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said of the opening 25 minutes. "Nothing was going our way. You know, when you go into Game 7, you expect things, and it didn't happen the way we wanted and kind of dug ourselves [into] a hole pretty much."
A playoff grid that looked to favor a Penguins repeat a few short days ago suddenly ended with the final game in Mellon Arena, spontaneous celebrations in the streets of Montreal and talk of maybe the Canadiens' first Cup since that fabled spring of Patrick Roy in 1993.
The Canadiens will play the winner of the Boston-Philadelphia series, which is now deadlocked at three games apiece with Game 7 set for Friday in Boston.
"This is a pretty happy feeling," said Mike Cammalleri, who scored the eventual game winner and added an assist on the Habs' fifth goal. "I almost don't want to get too excited because we've got to get back to business and get back to work. Winning just means you get to keep on going. I think we'll enjoy this one for a day or so. It's a pretty special thing. It seems like we're building a pretty special bond here and it's really fun to be a part of."
It matters not that the Penguins closed the gap to 4-2 at one point and had a couple of decent power-play chances that could have made it 4-3. And it doesn't really matter that they ended up outshooting the Habs 39-20 (Montreal has made an art of being wildly outshot this spring).
The fact the Penguins were staring at a 4-0 deficit before the first television timeout of the second period speaks to their stunning collapse after being immune to such mortality and the inextinguishable will of the Canadiens, who entered the postseason as an eighth-seeded patsy and now look like a juggernaut.
"A lot's going to be put on us like it has been all series," Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "I mean, they've beaten Washington and now they've beaten us. I think it's time to give this team some credit for what they've done rather than picking apart why we didn't do what we were supposed to do."
The point is well-taken. And we will say this about the Penguins: The dressing room was full of players in various states of undress answering patiently how their Stanley Cup defense had come to such a crashing end.
"No explanation [for the start]," forward Maxime Talbot said.
The voice of the man who scored both goals in the Cup-deciding game last June in Detroit cracked as he was asked how badly this loss hurt.
"It stings a lot," Talbot said. "It's pretty tough. You come into this game, you're not thinking about that, you're not thinking about losing this game. It's something tough to take right now. It's never fun to lose."
This one will be hard to walk away from.
The meltdown started early with captain Sidney Crosby taking a boarding penalty 10 seconds in, a case of early exuberance that cost the Pens when Brian Gionta tipped a P.K. Subban shot past Marc-Andre Fleury 22 seconds later.
The Pens talked about "getting to their game," yet there was Orpik wrestling with the agitating Maxim Lapierre behind the net and then screening Fleury on Dominic Moore's quick turnaround shot that made it 2-0 with 5:37 left in the first.
Chris Kunitz then had a hand in the next two Canadiens goals. He couldn't make a simple clearing pass, and Cammalleri, the Habs' go-to guy throughout the playoffs, ripped home his league-leading 12th goal. Later, Kunitz's pass bounced off a Montreal defender and ended up on the stick of Travis Moen, who raced around a statuesque Sergei Gonchar and snapped home the Canadiens' fourth goal.
That was the end for Fleury, who had been so good in shaking off playoff losses over the past three postseasons (11-3). Instead, he could not find it in his repertoire to make the one big stop his team needed and was replaced by Brent Johnson. Fleury allowed four goals on 13 shots.
Suddenly, what was supposed to be a tightly fought one-game drama, a classic in the making, was instead a laugher.
There appeared to be not one single Penguins player prepared to play in this game from the outset.
Defenseman Gonchar looked very much like a guy who had already checked out of the Penguins' plans. He'll be an unrestricted free agent this summer and isn't likely to return.
Evgeni Malkin, who looked so good in Game 5, turned in what might have been his worst playoff game as an NHLer, dropping passes to no one and regularly circling in the perimeter or passing into Habs defenders. He finished the series with one goal.
Crosby also finished with just one goal, his passes never quite finding the mark they always seemed to last spring and the spring before.
"It came down to execution and it came down to one game, that's basically it," Crosby said. "They played better and, unfortunately, we did not play well."
If there was a shift that typified Crosby's series, it was the 4-on-3 power play the Pens had at the start of the third period. Trailing 4-2, a goal would have changed the complexion of the game, but Crosby was denied on a rebound attempt in front of Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak and then sailed a one-timer wide. Halak also denied Malkin on another point-blank shot.
"Was it a great game or just a good game for [Halak]?" Cammalleri asked. "You kind of expect it from him. Everyone wants to sing his praises, but I'm going to sit here and say to you, we expect it from him and we're going to need him to keep doing it."
Some will suggest this Penguins team was tired as a way of rationalizing the end of its title defense. Maybe. This team has played a lot of hockey over the past three postseasons. Players like Gonchar, Malkin, Crosby and Orpik played at the Olympics, while Fleury was there as a backup.
But they were playing a team that had lost its best defenseman, Andrei Markov, in Game 1 of this series. Another defenseman, former Penguin Hal Gill, was playing after sustaining a cut on the back of his leg in Game 5 that kept him out of Game 6. The Habs were playing with a rookie defenseman in Subban, who had played two regular-season games before being called up for Game 6 in the first round.
How about the Canadiens, who had to play seven games to get past the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals in the first round?
"It's tough to say right now," Orpik said. "I don't think that's the reason why we lost the series."
Tired or not, that doesn't cut it for the Penguins. They were beaten by a team that shed the monikers of "eighth seed" and "underdog" a long time ago. Call them what you want, but these Habs were full measure for this series victory, perhaps even more so than against Washington.
Did Halak outplay Fleury? By a wide margin. But apart from Game 1, when they allowed four power-play goals, the Canadiens never played like a team that shouldn't have been here. Instead, they played like a team that has its eyes on something far bigger than just knocking off the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Ask Gill, who was in the Penguins' dressing room spraying champagne last season and now anchors a Montreal defense that held the Penguins to 12 goals over the final six games of this series.
"It doesn't mean anything if you don't win the whole thing," Gill said. "It's all about the big one."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.