Montreal Canadiens-Pittsburgh Penguins: Habs Advance to Conference Finals

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Montreal Canadiens-Pittsburgh Penguins: Habs Advance to Conference Finals
Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Montreal 5 Pittsburgh 2 (Mellon Arena) Habs win the series 4-3.


At the end of the opening montage on Hockey Night in Canada, Jean Beliveau was shown giving a pre-game pep talk to Glen Metropolit before Game Six outside the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room. It ended with a double fist pump from Beliveau as he walked down the tunnel to his seat.

The words of John McCrae's poem written on the wall of the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room came to mind. "To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high."

Indeed.

The Canadiens haven't been getting much respect, from experts around the league, from their opponents and even from mainstream media at home. But the members of this edition of the Habs have grasped the torch and will carry it into the Eastern conference finals. I, for one, am very proud.

After Game Five with the Habs down 3-to-2 in the series, many fans and media started to write the epitaph. Never one to follow the crowd, a different message appeared on these pages. It read, "the Montreal Canadiens can beat the Pittsburgh Penguins." A contrary view often attracts criticism, but we like it that way.

More important than our belief in the Habs was the players believing in themselves and each other. Both teams were nervous, but with the experienced group of leaders put together by Bob Gainey, Montreal was able to channel their stress towards a positive outcome.

"Courage is not the absence of fear. It is being afraid but being able to control that fear so you are able to perform at your highest ability. That's what makes a champion." — Cory Lester

It was the Penguins that looked tense, made mistakes, played soft, and took themselves out of the game by letting their emotions get the better of them. Give credit to the Habs for contributing to the pressure by being aggressive and winning puck battles. Surprisingly, it was the undisciplined play by Sidney Crosby, with a roughing minor only 10 seconds in, that set the tone for the game.

The penalty and a minus-2 rating were the most significant statistics for Crosby, who was frustrated in this game, and all series.

By contrast, Montreal's Brian Gionta had two goals, six shots, and provided effective leadership to his teammates throughout the game. Gionta's power-play goal only 32 seconds into the game was exactly the start that the Canadiens needed. Andrei Kostitsyn is back on track. His determined effort created a turnover that led to a Mike Cammalleri one-timer for the Habs' third goal.

Travis Moen had a gritty game leading the team in hits and scoring a back-breaking short-handed goal in the second period. The superb defensive play of Tomas Plekanec has gone mostly unnoticed but continued tonight. He has been primarily responsible for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combining for one even-strength goal in the series.

"There was a lot of criticism of this team last summer when (former general manager Bob Gainey) put it together. They said we were too small, not big enough to make the playoffs. But we knew what kind of players we had in this room," said Cammalleri.

The Canadiens dominated on special teams. They killed off all six Pittsburgh penalties, were 2-for-4 on the power-play, and scored a short-handed goal.

Josh Gorges, with five blocked shots, and Jaroslav Spacek were the most effective defenders in the game. The Habs blocked 26 shots in total.

Roman Hamrlik didn't have his best game. He took a bad penalty, and was helpless on a Penguins goal after losing his stick. P.K. Subban played 23 minutes and had an assist but struggled at times with decision-making.

I have enormous respect for Hal Gill and his decision to play with a reported 52 stitches to close the gash in the back of his leg. Gill had three blocked shots in the game. But Gill's skating was labored, and losing his stick directly led to one Penguins goal. His lack of mobility also caused him to take two penalties.

With only six defensemen in the lineup, Gill was required to play more than 22 minutes. Undoubtedly, the smarter play would have been to dress Ryan O'Byrne, who could have eaten up 12-to-14 minutes of icetime. The team would have benefited from having Marc-Andre Bergeron play fewer minutes.

With Jacques Martin shortening the bench to three lines, Mathieu Darche or Benoit Pouliot were obvious candidates for the press box. Darche, Pouliot, and Glenn Metropolit each played less than three minutes.

I'll refrain from going into detail on the officiating but suffice to say, it was not the expected caliber for the NHL playoffs. More than Dan O'Halloran's skate assist of Chris Kunitz's goal, there were many questionable calls and non-calls again tonight. These two teams deserved better.

Jaroslav Halak was outstanding in the third period where he faced 18 shots. He made a sensational save on Malkin when Pittsburgh was exerting some pressure. Fortress Habs is the term I coined for the five-man defensive zone coverage that has been so successful in blocking shots, supporting the goaltender and limiting opportunities.

In addition to the system, kudos should go to Kirk Muller for taking on a greater coaching role in the playoffs and implementing many of the adjustments that have brought the Canadiens past the President's Trophy winners and the defending Stanley Cup champions.

"We played Washington and we were supposed to get killed and we played these guys and we were supposed to get killed," said Gill. "It's nice to be part of a team that gets things done."

The Canadiens opened the Igloo with a 2-to-1 win on October 11, 1967 and they closed it tonight with a huge Game Seven victory.

“We’ve been talking about a lot, ‘Let’s make sure we play the last game at this rink,”’ Cammalleri said. “That’s a cool piece of history for us.”

The Habs are only eight wins away from the ultimate prize. So it's time for fans to stop looking to the future and get on the "I believe" train. Whoever the next opponent, the Bruins or the Flyers, it will be a series against a more hated rival. It will be another huge challenge, but the Canadiens have proved that they are up to the test.

The Habs return home tonight and will have a day off Thursday. Then they will begin the work to get ready for the conference finals which begin Sunday night in Boston or Philadelphia.


Rocket's three stars

1. Brian Gionta
2. Jaroslav Halak
3. Mike Cammalleri

Special mention: Tomas Plekanec, Travis Moen

Player quotes from wire services were used in this report.

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