The Montreal Canadiens won the first NHL game played in what is now known as Mellon Arena when they beat the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins back in 1967.
If the Canadiens upset Pittsburgh in Game 7 on Wednesday, they’ll win the last game ever played in the building too. Maybe that’s what the NHL’s marketing types were thinking about when they came up with the “History will be made” slogan for these playoffs.
Anyway, the league’s most storied franchise set up the possibility for what would be a potential first by forcing another Game 7. Montreal came back to win the opening round after trailing Washington 3-1, and going the distance to win the first two rounds is something the Canadiens have never done.
But the past really wasn’t an issue for a Montreal team that barely snuck into the playoffs. The Canadiens turned in their best effort of the series on both sides of the puck and saw their best players outplay those on Pittsburgh to score a 4-3 win and send the series back to Pittsburgh for the finale.
Mike Cammalleri moved into the playoff scoring lead with two goals for Montreal, Jaroslav Halak had another great game in net and in one of those “it figures” moments, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek scored a key goal after missing nine games. Spacek, you should know, wouldn’t have even dressed had Montreal most important defenseman Hal Gill not been injured in Game 5.
Gill’s absence was noticeable early because without his shadow, Sidney Crosby managed to find the space to score his first goal of the series. But the Canadiens patchwork blue line limited him to only two other shots in the game, and just four by Evgeni Malkin in what was another demonstration the kind of defense Montreal has had in these playoffs.
It was the key to their first-round upset of the Washington Capitals and is a big reason they are still here. The Penguins made it easier though in Game 6. They didn’t look particularly sharp or enthused, making sloppy plays and getting stood up in the neutral and at Montreal’s blue line. The Penguins found some good stretches, but never matched the Canadiens intensity and once they let the crowd back in the game, they were done.
That turning point came midway through the second with Pittsburgh leading 2-1. Halak was keeping his team alive – albeit with the help of his goalposts – but Montreal trailed because he failed to squeeze a harmless looking shot by Kris Letang early in the period. It was the weakest goal allowed in the playoffs by the man who is the main reason Montreal has gotten this far, but instead of being deflating, it rallied his teammates in a way that said they weren’t going to let it end that way for him.
Cammalleri found a seam before beating Marc-Andre Fleury to tie it the game and three minutes later Spacek drilled a slapshot home to blow the roof off the Bell Centre.
“Once the fans got into it, it’s a real push for the players,” Montreal coach Jacques Martin said. “It really helps them get into the game.”
And hard for opponents to respond, according to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
The Canadiens dominated the faceoff circle all night winning nearly 60 percents of the draws – Tomas Plekanec in particular was nearly flawless on the dot – and despite their patchwork blue line got much stingier in the third period when they made the most of the extra breathing room provided by Maxim Lapierre’s goal midway through. Bill Guerin made it interesting by deflecting Sergei Gonchar shot in the final two minutes to narrow the deficit, but Pittsburgh didn’t have what it takes to close out the Canadiens on this night.
And after watching Montreal’s unlikely march toward history, you have to wonder if they’ll have enough in Game 7.