In a round that had it all out west, the Eastern Conference may have delivered the most incredible comeback and upset in the history of playoff hockey. It also featured two more upsets and an intense, overtime-ridden series. Each of the four teams remaining have their own scars to bare, but only two will keep the wheels spinning to the Conference Finals.
The story of the first round, the Montreal Canadiens, are fresh off a seven-game stunner against the heavily favored Washington Capitals, and must now attempt to slay one more giant in their path: the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A career year in the regular season and a career year in the postseason? Such is the life of Sidney Crosby, who dominated the opening round with 14 points in six games, far and away most among his peers. Crosby’s outright takeover on the opposing net this playoff hasn’t gone unnoticed, either, as teammates Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz are finding the net with great ease as well.
The Pens benefited from a less than impressive setup in Ottawa when neither Brian Elliot nor Pascal Leclaire could stop the offense from doing their thing. Twelve different Penguins have goals this postseason, another league-leading statistic for a team primed to retake the Cup. Most frightening may be that behind Crosby and Russian elite Evgeni Malkin, the team’s third leading scorer his uber-pest Matt Cooke.
Montreal’s scoring has come from several components, but most notably, Tomas Plekanec and Michael Cammalleri. Plekanec is the clutch star scoring for what always feels like the last time in Montreal (his contract expires on July 1, making him one of the most desirable free agents this offseason). Plekanec’s offense is supplemental when compared, however, to Cammalleri.
Cammalleri’s return to the playoff scene came with a 10-point performance in the opening round, a booming shot, and a quicker-than-ever release. Whether or not Cammalleri can continue on his blistering pace (without injury) will have to be seen. Another surprise performer, Dominic Moore, helps fans ignore those spots where Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez played invisible hockey for 30 minutes.
Even with Montreal’s fast forwards and threatening shooters, one can hardly argue against the offensive prowess of a team built to be a dynasty. Advantage: Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s Sergei Gonchar may well be singing his swan song in a Pens uniform, so he’s made the most of it thus far. Playing almost 30 minutes a game, the perpetually-injured Gonchar has stayed healthy and integral to the Pens defensive morale. As a plus-seven, he’s tied (unsurprisingly with Sidney Crosby) for the team lead and is performing about as well as you can expect someone at his age to do.
As important as ever, since this game is still about defense, American Brooks Orpik is again proving how valuable he was for Pittsburgh to resign. Orpik is the definition of the old Pierre McGuire clichéd “Big Body Presence,” and despite those foibles, he plays at the top every night. Other contributing factors, like Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski, are still trying to fit into their roles rather than standout in negative ways.
Montreal’s defense, however, was a key component of victory over the Washington Capitals. No one can deny the incredible importance in the locker room that just being in the presence of Hal Gill has. Gill, the league’s most weathered, lumbering big man loves to shut down the superstar sniper.
Behind Gill on the actual defensive side has been the breakthrough of Josh Gorges, who is earning every penny of his currently small salary. If you haven’t been impressed with the shot-blocking, poke-checking, no-nonsense style Gorges exemplified in seven games against the highest scoring team in the NHL, you must have watched the series with your eyes closed.
Though these two have stylized a great overall “defense,” they are anchored by liabilities like Andrei Markov (minus-three) and Marc-Andre Bergeron (minus-eight). In fact, most of the team is still in the minus, a glaring side-effect to their big first round upset. Advantage: Pittsburgh.
As the defending Stanley Cup champion goalie, a lot was riding on Marc-Andre Fleury entering the 2010 playoffs. To say he has yet to deliver the goods might be an understatement.
Fleury looked lost during critical moments of the Senators series, giving up goals that, for lack of a better term, were soft. Though we can forgive him for his triple overtime surrender on a slow, trickling puck through the legs, at least eight of the other 18 goals he surrendered could have been avoided. Depending on when, Fleury needs to start showing the flashes of brilliance that carried Pittsburgh to consecutive Cup appearances.
Consequently, Pittsburgh’s biggest competition in the second round won’t be preventing goals. It’ll be scoring them. Jaroslav Halak received a wake-up call like no other after he was yanked in favor of fledgling Carey Price midway through the Habs/Caps series.
Then, despite a three-game deficit, Halak responded with the best net minding of his career, turning in back-to-back-to-back performances that were nearly picture perfect. He proved he could face 50+ shots a game and surrender one goal or fewer. He stifled the league’s most prolific scorer and a team that flirted with scoring four goals a game for the entire year.
Fans may want to believe that Marc-Andre Fleury is more tested and therefore the better choice, but as of this printing, Jaroslav Halak is the best goalie remaining in the NHL playoffs. Now, he has to prove it again. Advantage: Montreal.
Bill Guerin had six points and 19 penalty minutes against the Habs this season, putting him atop our list for players to watch this round. On the other side, Brian Gionta only appeared in two games against Pittsburgh this year, yet had a field day with two goals and two assists.
Despite a rich history for both teams, the Habs and Pens have met only once in the postseason with Montreal emerging victorious. Pittsburgh, however, trashed the Canadiens in the regular season this past year.
Halak is due to keep the Penguins on their heels for the second round, but the grueling experience of three elimination games may cause a little more than jetlag for the comeback kids in Montreal. Penguins in six.