Who Are These Guys?

May 15, 2010

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Jeff Ponder

Who Are These Guys?

The Eastern Conference Finals could have been predicted at the start of the 2009-10 season.  Sidney Crosby will lead his Pittsburgh Penguins to face Alexander Ovechkin and the high-powered Washington Capitals.  Crosby, along with his star support like goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Sergei Gonchar, can only be beaten at their own game; scoring more goals than the other team and flexing their offensive muscles at every turn.  The same can be said for Ovechkin and his teammates like defenseman Mike Green and forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin.  No one can stop these guys; or so we thought.  Who do these Canadien guys think they are?

Ovechkin and Crosby were at almost a loss for words after being taken out by the number eight seed in two straight playoff series.

Despite scoring five goals and ten points in the disappointing seven game series with Montreal, Ovechkin took complete blame for losing in seven games.  “It was my fault," he said shortly after the loss. "We need to score goals. I have a chance to score goals, I didn't score goals."

“They did a lot of good things that good teams need to do to win. Unfortunately for us, we didn't do that,” Crosby said after his game seven upset by the Canadiens.  “We all want that perfect ending. I don't think we have thought about [the loss], but it is disappointing.”

So how exactly has this Cinderella team beaten the two powerhouses in the East? 

"Obviously, you have to give Montreal a lot of credit,” stated veteran Penguins winger Bill Guerin.  “They played some amazing hockey this series. Their defensive play was incredible. Their team play was as good as I've seen. They deserve a lot of the credit."

"We wanted to play our game plan no matter what," said Canadiens defenseman Hal Gill, who was a healthy scratch in game six but was a force defensively in game seven.  "We wanted to push the pace and play in their end and we did that as much as we could. We got a couple of lucky bounces, maybe; a couple lucky goals. Things go your way. It's nice when it goes that way."

Balanced scoring and steady defense has been the real threat for the Canadiens.  For the skaters that have played in five games or more in the playoffs, every player on the Habs' roster with one exception has at least one point.  Off-season addition Mike Cammalleri has added 12 goals and six assists so far, including the first goal of the playoffs for Montreal on a tricky snapshot late in the first to open the scoring in the series.  Possibly the biggest surprise could be the play of defenseman P.K. Subban, who just turned 21 on May 13.  He was called to the big club in the first round and has played in nine games since.  Playing in just two NHL games before that, Subban has been playing against the top lines for the Caps and Penguins and has miraculously posted a positive plus/minus rating of three. 

“I wasn’t surprised … he’s a NHL player,” said Curtis Sanford, the AHL's Hamilton Bulldog goaltender and teammate of Subban's for the regular season. “It was only a matter of time. He certainly doesn’t look out of place up there. I think it was good for him to be down here and learn the professional game, grow a little, mature a little more and he’s showing he’s poised enough and he’s matured enough to be up there.”

Sophomore goaltender Jaroslav Halak may be the man who has stolen the spotlight from the NHL superstars though.  His league-best .933 save percentage while facing the most shots in the playoffs by a wide margin has stunned his opponents.  None of his saves have been better than his stellar save in game four while on a penalty kill in the middle of the third period.  With the Canadiens clinging to a 3-2 lead in the game and the series at 2-1 Pittsburgh, Halak made two saves on point shots and the rebound squirted out to Crosby who was on Halak's right.  He instantly snapped the shot and Halak slid across to stop the point-blank shot by the nearly unstoppable Pittsburgh captain.  The puck was cleared and the Canadiens went on to win the game.  Without that save, the Canadiens may not have made it as far as they have.  After the stop, Halak played his game and never seemed to get rattled.  His cool nature may be the key to his outstanding play between the pipes.  Even off the rink, Halak is as calm and collective as if he were facing a penalty shot in overtime.

"We have nothing to lose," Halak said. "We're not even supposed to be here. No one gave us a chance to go through the first round."

Montreal will go on to face the Philadelphia Flyers, who just rallied to beat the Boston Bruins after being down 3-0 in the series; something that has happened only two other times in NHL history.  It seems that both teams will be riding giant momentum waves.  But who is on the bigger high right now?

It seems that the Canadien players do not seem to care what got them this far; they are focused on moving forward.

“In the playoffs, it’s a cliché but you really have to turn the page quickly. You just have to keep in mind the things you did well in the first two rounds,” left-wing Maxim Lapierre explained before finding out the outcome of the Bruins and Flyers game seven. “But we’re only halfway to our goal and we can’t stop now. We know it’s not going to be easy – we’re playing a tough team whether it’s Boston or Philly. We’re enjoying what we’re doing but it’s far from over.”

“...we’ve got a long way to go. We’re not going to get too far ahead of ourselves here – we’ve got a lot to prove still,” added Cammalleri in an interview with the Canadiens home web page. “It is what it is. On paper, you’re not facing Crosby or Ovechkin or Malkin so the dynamic changes a little bit but if you get to the Conference Finals, you’re playing a team that’s playing pretty well so it only gets more difficult from here.”

If the Flyers are good enough to defeat Martin Brodeur and the Devils and then rally from a 3-0 series deficit against the Bruins, they are good enough to beat the giant-killer Canadiens. 

The Canadiens cannot take the Flyers lightly; otherwise they may run into Crosby and Ovechkin on the golf course in a few short weeks.  The Canadiens can only control their destiny from here on out.  They are hoping that the well-balanced attack shows up for the Conference Finals and not the team that just barely squeaked into the playoffs.  So far, the regular season Canadiens are a distant memory.

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