Now, Habs are ones coming up empty
How does it feel to suddenly be the team that does things right, works hard, has the bulk of the shots and chances, and inexplicably comes up empty?
The Montreal Canadiens made an art of frustrating favored Washington and Pittsburgh through the first two rounds. Now, suddenly, it's the opportunistic Habs who have suddenly come up short.
That was the case early in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, where they couldn't capitalize and ended up losing 6-0. And it was so throughout Game 2 on Tuesday night in a 3-0 loss to a Philadelphia Flyers team that has adopted the Habs' old patient, opportunistic personae.
"Yeah, a little bit of our own medicine, I guess," Montreal defenseman Hal Gill said. "We're playing with them, we're just not getting the job done."
The Canadiens outshot Philadelphia 13-6 in the first period of Game 1 before folding and they promised a more consistent effort in Game 2; they delivered, outshooting the Flyers 26-13 through the first two periods Tuesday night. They promised to be more disciplined, and they were (sort of), taking just four minors compared with six in Game 1.
The problem was the Flyers scored on their first power play as Danny Briere ripped a shot over Jaroslav Halak's glove to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead just 4:16 into the game. The red-hot Briere now has goals in four straight games and nine points in his past six contests.
That the Flyers were on the power play at all was due to another small lapse by the Canadiens' Scott Gomez, who was called for hooking Claude Giroux with the Canadiens on a power play of their own. He didn't like the call. Which player likes a call that ends up with the puck in his own net?
"You saw it, didn't you?" he said. "I had my stick get caught [in Giroux's sweater]. I had my hands up to show it was caught. It's going to happen. I can't really comment on it. It's the call and I'm not going to complain. There's not much you can do."
The bottom line is, Gomez was in the box when the Flyers opened the scoring in Game 1 and he was in the box in Game 2. In both cases, those goals turned out to be the game winners.
Even though they were trailing 1-0, the Canadiens' effort was more sustained through Game 2. Not long after the Briere goal, the Canadiens had another power play and dominated, peppering Flyers goalie Michael Leighton with nonstop quality chances. Yet Leighton, the journeyman waiver-wire pickup who is suddenly channeling Bernie Parent circa 1974, could not be beat.
"You know, Michael Leighton saved our game tonight in the first period," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "We gave up way too many scoring chances. We weren't prepared physically or mentally and we got dominated. One guy stood on his head and we were able to chip one in on the power play on Danny's goal. But ... you don't want to roll those dice too many times."
The Canadiens' strong play carried into the second period as well, and the Flyers looked more like a road team trying to protect a lead than a home team that has now scored 13 unanswered goals since trailing Boston 3-0 in the first period of Game 7 in the second round.
Even as the pace of the game slowed to a crawl, it mattered not to the Flyers. They were merely biding their time, waiting, as it turns out, for Brian Gionta to take a hooking penalty behind the play with less than six minutes left in the second period. Late in the ensuing power play, Simon Gagne, yet another Flyer who has made heroic plays commonplace this spring, delivered a nice pass to Ville Leino in front, got knocked down, got up and then picked up a rebound himself and put it in the net for a 2-0 lead.
"It feels pretty good, but at the same time, we've been on the other side, and we know that until the other team doesn't close the series, it's not over," said Gagne, who now has six goals in six games since returning from a foot injury sustained at the end of the first round. "For us, we did what we had to do here at home -- get those two wins. But at the same time, we have a lot of things we can improve on our game, especially five-on-five. Our goalie had to be very good for us tonight to win the game."
Through the first two games, the Flyers have scored nine goals on 48 shots. That's called making the most of your opportunities. Meanwhile, the Canadiens, so opportunistic through the first two rounds (they are 8-3 when outshot by the opposition), have come up dry.
Even Mike Cammalleri, the Habs' trigger man with 12 goals through the first 14 games, has struggled. Held to one shot in Game 1, he had four in Game 2 and was in a position to change the tide of the game in the second period.
Shortly after Gagne made it 2-0, Cammalleri found himself alone in the slot after a Braydon Coburn turnover. After finding the corner or banking one in off the post so many times, he found only Leighton's midsection.
"I threw a muffin at him. I didn't really snap it," Cammalleri said.
Leino would add a third goal not long after another Philadelphia power play, putting a puck past Halak. As the puck sailed past the stunned Montreal netminder, it was hard not to be reminded of Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, who never seemed to be able to match Halak in the second round. It's not that he was bad, but maybe just not good enough, just as the Caps and Pens weren't quite good enough. So far in the East finals, the Habs have not been quite good enough against the Flyers.
"It's only natural to be frustrated, but you can't let yourself fall into that," Gill said. "You can't let it change your game. What happens is, you get frustrated and you get out of character. We need to stay the way we've been successful."
Tomas Plekanec, who has failed to find the back of the net in 10 straight postseason games, suggested things may have been different if the Canadiens scored on that first power play.
"That first power play was crucial for us," Plekanec said. "If we would have scored there, I'm sure the game would be different, but we didn't and they scored on their chances and their power play and that was the game. Like I said, we did a better job tonight as far as the scoring chances, as far as the special teams, but still not good enough to win the game."
Calling the Habs' playoff demise is a little like calling an election too early; it's easy to do, but there's every chance you'll end up with poutine on your face. The Habs have been solid at home of late, winning three of their past four home games this spring. But the time of reckoning is at hand.
"I don't really feel frustrated. I don't think we do as a group," Cammalleri said. "That's sports, and anybody who has played sports at a high level, that's how it goes, man. It goes your way sometimes, sometimes it doesn't. You just keep working, you keep getting better and things change quickly.
"Everybody wants to keep asking about frustration," he added. "But I don't feel frustrated, [we] feel like we did a lot of good things and we're excited to go home and play some hockey."
Still, even as Cammalleri was speaking those words, it was hard not to hear the echo of similar refrains spoken by players in Washington and Pittsburgh as the Habs patiently closed out their seasons.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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