Jacques Martin believes that the team must be passive and that the Habs' best formula for winning is with strong special teams and excellent goaltending.
The Canadiens didn't get either today. Yet they dominated and beat the defending Stanley Cup Champions.
It was a different formula for success that included hard work, aggressive forechecking, and winning puck battles. It was led by Mathieu Darche, Brock Trotter, David Desharnais, and Ryan White, who have been trained to play a vastly different system with Hamilton. When they were on the ice, the Penguins were on their heels and played defense.
While trapped in their own zone, Pittsburgh took six minor penalties. The fourth line of Trotter, White, and Desharnais drew four of them. White also scored a take-down of Bill Guerin when he was challenged. Trotter led the Canadiens with five shots on goal.
"All year in Hamilton we've been used to creating offence," Trotter said. "It's the same ice sheet here, so we just tried to do what we're good at. We didn't end up getting one tonight, but I think we created some momentum for the team."
While the Bulldogs provided energy, it was the team's core players like Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, and Scott Gomez who delivered the offense by combining for eight points. Plekanec played over 21 minutes, had a goal and two assists, and was 60 percent at the faceoff dot. Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek were a strong pairing on defense, and each got an assist.
"The kids played well, but in the end when you look at the scoresheet, the guys who got the production are the guys you count on daily," coach Martin said. "Our top two lines responded well. They played against some top players and outplayed them."
Rather than surrendering the neutral zone, as has been the game plan for most of the season, the Canadiens pressured the Pittsburgh puck carriers creating turnovers. Then the Habs were able to use speed to expose a slow Pittsburgh defense. This allowed them to set up shop in the Pittsburgh zone to create scoring chances.
Employing this pressure system, a lineup with five AHL players was able to neutralize a team who were 11 points ahead of the Canadiens coming into this game and who had scored 31 more goals.
"We were getting up ice better, our forecheck was better," Gionta said. "We weren't sitting back waiting for them to come to us. If you sit back with those guys, they're going to pick you apart. I thought we did a good job of initiating the tempo of the game."
Some will say that it is only one game. That's true, but the same formula was effective against Vancouver last week and against Boston on the night of the Centennial game. It is the system that is working for the Bulldogs and one that matches the strengths of the Canadiens' players, but not endorsed by their coach.
With the fourth line was deservedly grabbing the attention of the fans and broadcasters, let's hope that it also provided a wake-up call to Max Lapierre. Lapierre had the least amount of ice time with 8:46 and could be in danger of losing his spot in the line-up if he continues to be outplayed by the youngsters.
Montreal special teams were not a deciding factor as they have been in so many games. Penalty killers were only called on three times on one of the rare occasions when the opposition was assessed more minor penalties. While the Habs scored one power-play goal, they also gave up a short-handed goal to Pittsburgh.
It was only an ordinary effort for the goaltenders. Marc-Andre Fleury gave up four goals before he was pulled in favor of Brent Johnson. Jaroslav Halak made just 18 saves and gave up a soft goal to Guerin.
When asked about the contribution of Halak, Gionta said, "I don't know if we didn't rely on him, but I thought it was a better defensive effort. We didn't give up too many chances. Especially against a talented team like that, that's what we needed."
Let's hope that the effort and system continue on Sunday afternoon at the Bell Centre when the Canadiens host the Bruins.
Rocket's Three Stars
1. Tom Plekanec
2. Brian Gionta
3. Brock Trotter
Mathieu Darche, Scott Gomez, Roman Hamrlik