Montreal Canadiens-Pittsburgh Penguins: Habs Offense is Too Little, Too Late

Rocket All HabsCorrespondent IMay 9, 2010

MONTREAL- MAY 6:  Mike Cammalleri #13 of the Montreal Canadiens battles for the puck with Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Bell Centre on May 6, 2010 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.  (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Montreal 1 Pittsburgh 2 (Mellon Arena) Pittsburgh leads the series 3-2.

"Above anything else, I hate to lose." — Jackie Robinson

"I hate to lose more than I love to win." — Jimmy Connors

"If there's one thing I hate, it's losing. If there's two things I hate, it's losing and getting cancer." — Kenny Powers, East Bound and Down

Postgame callers to a Montreal radio station seemed pleased with the effort of the Canadiens. "We hung with them tonight." Another said, "Remember, we're not even supposed to be here. We scraped into the playoffs, you know."

The injuries to Andrei Markov and Jaroslav Spacek were cited as obstacles that were difficult to overcome.

The host encouraged fans to "give the Habs a thunderous ovation" when they take the ice on Monday night to "thank them for the tremendous playoff run." As the calls continued, we heard phrases like "no one expected them to get this far," and the Canadiens "shouldn't hang their heads" because "there's lots to be proud of."

I admit that I was surprised at the patronizing language. To me, it smacked of a defeatist attitude.

There are no points given for keeping games close. The league doesn't put an asterisk beside a loss that occurs when the team's best player watches from behind the glass in a suit. Getting further in the playoffs than the pundits predicted earns no awards.

It's puzzling that some fans are willing to give up so easily and select media have already started writing the team's epitaph.

There will be plenty of time for a post-mortem and congratulatory comments.

Mark me down as being in the Connors and Robinson camps. I think losing stinks. Focusing on the positives should only be used in a context of learning to improve for the next game, not as some warped, feel-good consolation prize.

So, for now, there is only one focal point: the Canadiens can still win this series.

Let me write that again: the Montreal Canadiens can beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Determining how to do that should be the only preoccupation of the coaching staff for the next two days. Believing in the mission and supporting the players is the job of the fans.

Perhaps that explains the roots of my critique. While I'm happy that the Canadiens have six wins in the playoffs, I'm not satisfied. This is a special group of players who are capable of more.

The fate of the team is in the hands of Jacques Martin. Right now the Habs need a leader who will maximize players' strengths and put them in the best position to succeed. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is doing exactly that for his team. Right now, he is winning the battle of making between-game and in-game adjustments.

To counter the Canadiens close man-to-man defensive coverage, Pittsburgh rotated a forward high to spread out the defense. While Washington couldn't get a sniff, the Penguins power-play seems to have figured out Habs' penalty-killing schemes. Playing against a small goaltender who tends to go down early, Bylsma has his team shooting high.

Both Pittsburgh goals tonight were scored by defensemen from the point with shots over the shoulder of Jaroslav Halak. Dominic Moore failed to clear the zone on the Kris Letang goal, and Mike Cammalleri can be faulted for playing too casual on Sergei Gonchar's goal.

"They're trying to protect their goalie and the net, so if we can get some looks from those areas, guys can get them through," Sidney Crosby said.

Crosby remains without a goal in the series.  Missing an empty net in the last minute of the game ensured that his goalless streak moved to five games.

The Canadiens played well, especially in the third period where they outshot the Penguins 15-to-6.

Cammalleri and Tomas Plekanec got the lion's share of the scoring chances with 14 shots combined. Plekanec was also a very impressive 70 percent at the faceoff dot.

But, the Habs are simply a different team when they aren't ahead. Martin's system depends on scoring first and protecting a lead. Given the risky bench management strategy, the Habs forwards didn't have enough gas in the tank to play catch-up.

Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez have been playing substantial minutes and showed signs of fatigue tonight. With Martin relying on four offensive players they were relatively easily defended.

The coach decided to dole out extra minutes to players like Moore, Tom Pyatt, Travis Moen, and Max Lapierre, all who had more ice-time than Andrei Kostitsyn. The best way to exacerbate the scoring slump of a sniper is to keep him on the bench. Or the best way to handcuff your offense is to marginalize the Kostitsyns, one on the bench and one in Montreal.

The Canadiens defense were already undermanned with Spacek and Markov nursing injuries. Add Hal Gill to the list as the back of his leg was lacerated by Chris Kunitz's skate in the third period. Gill stayed overnight in Pittsburgh while his team chartered back to Montreal.

As a result Marc-Andre Bergeron played more minutes with the expected cover-your-eyes-MAB's-on-the-ice-again results. Josh Gorges was fortunate to survive a tremendous hit after being hung out to dry by a Bergeron pass.

Officiating was better tonight. Some will point to Plekanec being dragged down or Matt Cooke playing with a broken stick but there were only a few missed calls and they occurred on both sides. For the most part, referees Stephen Walkom and Kelly Sutherland flew under the radar, as they should.

The Canadiens must win the next two games to advance to the third round. A pessimist may point out that no team has won two games in a row in this series. An optimist will use the same statistic to argue why the Penguins should not win Game Six.

"Obviously, everybody still believes," said Halak said. "It's 3-2, and we are still in it. We've been in this situation before."

The teams return to Montreal for Game Six on Monday night.

Rocket's three stars

1. Evgeni Malkin
2. Sergei Gonchar
3. Tomas Plekanec

Special mention: Mike Cammalleri, Marc-Andre Fleury

Player quotes from wire services were used in this report.

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