The rust that you might have expected of a high-energy team forced to sit around for nearly a week was certainly there, and it lasted, oh say, about eight minutes or so.
That was even enough for the Montreal Canadiens, a team widely considered a heavy underdog, yet still riding the highest of highs from pulling off a monumental playoff upset just a couple of days earlier, to grab a lead. And it came on a goal that for a group less self-assured than the Pittsburgh Penguins might have been reason for concern since their goalie Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t look particularly distinguished on P.K. Subban’s shot from the point.
But these Penguins are the reigning Stanley Cup champions after all, well aware of what it takes to win games at this time of year, and even more cognizant of how they’ll have to go about it after watching the Canadiens stun the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round.
The Capitals, of course, have a deeply talented lineup, one that is arguably deeper than even these Penguins. But the fundamental reason that Pittsburgh has been so successful in the last few post-seasons compared to their arch rivals has always been in its approach and execution. And if that wasn’t apparent before this game began, it had to be once Pittsburgh snapped quickly to attention after falling behind.
The Penguins hit the on switch, got down to their business-like way of doing things and quickly scored two power play goals before the period ended, taking a lead they never relinquished en route to an easy 6-3 win over Montreal in the opening game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
That’s double the total Washington’s league-best power play managed in their entire series against Montreal by the way. And it was half the team record-tying total the Penguins would manage before the night was over and before they chased the man who stole the opening round for the Canadiens, goalie Jaroslav Halak.
“We just executed,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We capitalized on our chances and we got rewarded.”
Funny thing is that Pittsburgh didn’t do it by overwhelming Halak the way Washington did either. Halak got in the way of more than 40 pucks in each of the last three games, but the Penguins fired only 20 shots before Canadiens coach Jacques Martin mercifully gave his fatigued netminder the hook midway through the third period. Instead Pittsburgh found a better way of doing things, creating pressure and neutralizing the strengths and the game plan than Montreal had used so effectively against Washington.
“We watched the video and we prepared ourselves,” said Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who got the Pens on the board with a howitzer from the point. “We were moving puck a lot and making sure there was traffic in front of goalie. It was a plan.”
And obviously it was a pretty good one too. Earlier in the day, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma had allowed that his team would not be “flying down the wing and trying to blow shots by Halak” the way Washington did, rather it would try to “create a storm in the offensive zone.”
In layman’s terms that meant aggressive offensive zone pressure from more than one forward at a time, playing behind the net and getting the defenseman to cheat in. The idea was to keep Montreal from the clean breakouts they managed so effectively in the opening round and to prevent the Canadiens from getting into position to block anywhere near the ridiculous amount of shots they did.
It meant looking for quality rather than quantity when it came to firing the puck. And it required as critical a contribution from grinders like Craig Adams, Pascal Dupuis and Matt Cooke as much as it did from the usual star suspects Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Gonchar.
Ultimately it ended up working more or less exactly as it was drawn up. Halak’s aura of invincibility and the psychological edge it gave Montreal was gone early, his effectiveness negated by the way Pittsburgh buzzed around him around all night and forced him to play deep in his net rather than challenging shooters. Montreal’s inability to cut off lanes and limit good scoring chances as a consequence of the Penguins strategy did not help their beleaguered hero either.
The Canadiens clearly looked tired from their quick turnaround and were no doubt hurt by the first period loss of defenseman Andrei Markov, who seemed to twist his leg as he fell after taking a clean hit from Cooke in the corner. But Pittsburgh lost a key player as well when Jordan Staal limped off the ice in the second period, although by then the Penguins had the game well in hand.
Maybe too much so because the Penguins did suffer a lull after Kris Letang upped their lead to 3-1 early in the second period, and some sloppy work in their own end gave Montreal’s most dangerous sniper, Mike Cammalleri , the opening to narrow the gap. But much like after Subban’s goal, that one served as a wake-up call and the Penguins needed only three minutes to get it back.
Pittsburgh iced things with a couple of goals sandwiched around a meaningless one by Brian Gionta. And if this night was any indication, they may have already iced this series.
Penguins power humbles Habs and Halak
Posted on: April 30, 2010 10:50 pm
Edited on: May 1, 2010 8:24 am