The Pittsburgh Penguins will spend the next couple of days telling themselves they had a win stolen from them by the Montreal Canadiens. And there will be some truth to it because the Penguins outplayed Montreal so thoroughly in the first 40 minutes, the game had a men-against-boys kind of feel to it.
But if there is a lesson to be learned from the Canadiens in these playoffs, it is that failing to put them away when the opportunity exists does come back to hurt you. Pittsburgh missed its chance in a frenetically paced Game 4 and now goes home with the series evened up at 2 after losing 3-2 on Thursday.
"Their goaltender played well, they battled around the net and they did a good job of keeping themselves in the game by going into the third period down just 2-1," shrugged Penguins coach Dan Bylsma.
The hockey gods helped as well, although in this case, it might simply been a matter of them evening things up. Pittsburgh fell behind early when Tom Pyatt scored on a really bad angle shot against Marc-Andre Fleury, but the Penguins countered with a pair of goals in the next three minutes -- both of which were helped along by referees who couldn't or wouldn't get the whistle out of their pockets.
Check out the highlights. You'll see Maxime Talbot pick up the equalizer when he went in alone after breaking free from defenseman P.K. Subban, who was taken down not very discreetly at the Penguins blue line by Ruslan Fedotenko. A couple of minutes later, Sidney Crosby wasn't called for a trip on Canadiens defenseman Roman Hamrlik on a Penguins power play that ended with Chris Kunitz scoring.
Still those breaks were only part of the story of the first two periods that saw Pittsburgh spend the majority of time in Montreal's end and hold a 26-9 shot advantage.
"We took two periods off," said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill.
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Maybe that's why the Penguins looked like they were skating downhill most of that time. They spent the majority of the game charging into Montreal's zone with odd-man attacks and then keeping the puck there by making plays off the wall and from behind the net.
The Penguins managed plenty of traffic in front of the net too, but they couldn't solve Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, allowing Montreal hang around and long enough to find another gear.
"We were embarrassed for two periods, but then in the third period we came," said Gill. "We just competed on another level."
One that smacked of desperation by a team not interested in falling behind 3-1 for a second consecutive series. That was apparent just two minutes in when Maxim Lapierre outworked several defenders behind Pittsburgh's net and scored the tying goal on a wraparound.
"That's playoff hockey and you have to deal with momentum shifts and adversity," Bylsma said. "It's a tough place to do that and they did get that momentum.
"Our bench was trying to get to our game and to execute. It was made difficult by the building, but the Canadiens kept the pressure on too."
And Montreal got its reward and payback a few minutes after Talbot gave away the puck in the offensive zone. The Penguins forward was high-sticked by Canadiens Hamrlik but didn't get the call despite a dive attempt that would have earned high marks at a meet, and it opened the door for Brian Gionta to complete the comeback with a pass that bounced off Penguins defenseman Kris Letang for the winning goal.
It was a fluke goal to be sure, and coupled with Pyatt's, the second for Montreal on this night. But the Canadiens found a way to hold on to this lead, largely because Halak was continuing to work the magic he has demonstrated throughout the playoffs. Montreal helped him by blocking 25 shots, but Halak had to made several big saves in the final moments, one of them on a partial breakaway by Evgeni Malkin to preserve a win that may have changed the dynamic of this series.
"A character win is always a huge lift," Gill said.
Even if you have to steal it.