Call it magic, a miracle, or Montreal's ghosts raising from the past. Whatever the explanation, the Canadiens find themselves into Round 2 of the playoffs after a stunning upset of the Washington Capitals.
For that great accomplishment, they get the dubious pleasure of meeting a team that has been to two straight Stanley Cup Finals, winning the last one. It was an historic achievement on the part of the Canadiens, even if it must have left a lot of people in NHL headquarters gnashing their teeth because it prevented a postseason rematch between the league's marquee players.
Chances are though you won't hear Sidney Crosby and his fellow Pittsburgh Penguins complaining about missing out on facing Alex Ovechkin again. Especially since the Penguins are much better suited to playing the Canadiens than their arch rivals from the nation's capital.
That's not to suggest Montreal will be an easy mark for the Penguins. The Canadiens did a remarkable job containing and frustrating the Capitals, but if Pittsburgh isn't quite as explosive, it can still generate enough offense and do it more efficiently than Washington.
Count on that posing a greater challenge for the Canadiens than they faced in the first round. Truth is the Canadiens were dominated territorially by the Caps, and survived because goalie Jaroslav Halak was out of his head and Washington didn't play much of a percentage game. The Penguins are much smarter in that regard, and they have better defense and goaltending than Washington. And unlike the Capitals, they won't take Montreal for granted.
Here's a closer look at the series:
How they got here: Pittsburgh fell just two points short of winning the Atlantic Division, mainly because they couldn't beat the champs from New Jersey all season. But they're still standing and now favored to come out of the conference after beating Ottawa in six games.
Intangibles: The Penguins are the reigning Cup champs, which automatically gives them a leg up psychologically. And with everyone above them in the East knocked out, they get home-ice advantage until, and maybe into, the Stanley Cup Finals, if they get there. Don't bet against it. If there is one thing about these Penguins, it is that they've learned how to win in the last couple of seasons, largely because of the leadership of Crosby. But Evgeni Malkin steps it up the longer things go, and as the Senators found out after blowing a couple of big leads, Pittsburgh simply doesn't get fazed regardless of the situation.
Strengths: Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal down the middle, Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, high-energy players on the wing and a savvy veteran Sergei Gonchar both in the back end and quarterbacking the power play. What makes a big and sometimes underappreciated difference for this team is the calming demeanor of coach Dan Bylsma.
Player to watch: Take your pick from any of the above. All tend to stand out at some point during the postseason.
Key matchup: Brooks Orpik, the Penguins best shutdown guy, against Mike Cammalleri, Montreal's most dangerous forward.
How they got here: Backed into the playoffs despite losing their last three games and then snapped to attention and pulled off one of the biggest playoff upsets ever by eliminating Presidents' Trophy winning Washington in seven games.
Intangibles: The Canadiens used to have the ghosts of the old Montreal Forum working in their favor, but they disappeared once the team moved to the Bell Centre more than a decade ago. Still, there is an aura about the most storied franchise in NHL history that showed up during their stunning win against the Caps. What seems to be helping Montreal more now is the underdog status they are enjoying and taking advantage of. On paper, Montreal didn't have the talent to match up against Washington and they don't stack up any better against the Penguins. But they've figured out how to overcome it with a smart game plan that everyone seems to be buying into.
Strengths: If Jaroslav Halak keeps playing goal this way, they might consider erecting a statue of him outside the Habs arena, right next to the one of Rocket Richard. He's been that good. But his teammates help him a lot, too, by the way they block shots and cut off passing lanes. The Canadiens are small up front, but they are really fast and they forecheck well. An offensive juggernaut Montreal is not, but Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec can score, and they keep opposing defenders honest when they're on the ice.
Player to watch: Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban was called up before Game 6 after having a great playoff run with Montreal's top minor league team. He didn't look out of place and will likely get an even bigger role against the Penguins.
Key matchup: Towering defenseman Hal Gill was a big reason the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season and he'll remind his former team of that in this series. Gill has teamed with Josh Gorges to form a superb shutdown tandem and the duo will be on the ice whenever Crosby and his unit are.
PREDICTION: Pittsburgh in 6.