Last night fans in Montreal were partying like their beloved Habs had just won the Stanley Cup, and for good reason. The Canadiens pulled an upset for the ages, dispatching the heavily favored Washington Capitals in 7 games to advance to the second round of the NHL playoffs. In doing so, they became the first #8 seed to ever come back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat a #1 seed. Before the series started every hockey pundit on the planet was picking Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals to make short work of the Habs, who'd limped into the playoffs on the final weekend of the regular season. However, those so-called experts (yours truly included) didn't count on a goaltending performance that would defy credulity. Jaroslav Halak turned in a performance reminiscent of Ken Dryden in 1971 and Patrick Roy in 1986. The question is, can he do it again?
The road doesn't get any easier for Halak and his Montreal Canadiens teammates. Their reward for taking out the President's Trophy winners? A date with Sidney Crosby and his defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins moved on to round two after dispatching the Ottawa Senators in 6 games in round one. Pittsburgh actually finished in 4th place in the Eastern Conference this season, but because the 2nd seeded New Jersey Devils, and 3rd seeded Buffalo Sabres were also upset, the Pens are now the highest remaining seed in the East.
Montreal doesn't get to savor their first round victory for very long. They will be back in the fray tomorrow night (Friday, April 30th) at 7:00 PM EST for a road game in Pittsburgh, and you can bet the Pens, who've had several days rest, are going to come out guns-a-blazin' against what has to be a very fatigued Canadiens squad.
If the Habs are going to stage another shocking upset against the defending champs they are going to have to switch up their game plan. Over the final three games of the Washington series they collapsed into a defensive shell, rarely penetrating the Washington zone. As a result they were out-shot by nearly a three to one margin, and only the outstanding play of Halak and the shot-blocking ability of their defense core allowed them to pull off the miracle they did. They can't continue to sit back and let the other team take it to them if they want to stay alive against the powerful Penguins.
Sidney Crosby looks hungry to get his mitts on a second straight Stanley Cup and he was nearly unstoppable in round one against the Sens, leading all scorers with a whopping 14 points in just 6 games. Containing him will be priority #1 for the Habs. They managed to throw a blanket over stars like Alexander Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom over the final three games of their series against Washington, but Crosby is a whole different animal. #87 plays a far less predictable game than Ovie, and his creativity and his vision on the ice make him a nightmare to defend, particularly in light of the goal-scoring touch he has found this year. Hal Gill, Josh Gorges and Andrei Markov will have their hands full containing Pittsburgh's dynamic sensation.
If they do manage to keep Crosby's offensive contributions to a minimum they still have to deal with Pittsburgh's other superstar. Evgeni Malkin didn't have a great regular season by his high standards, but he seems to have found his game at the most important time of year. He chipped in with 8 points of his own in the first round, and will ensure the Canadiens can't focus too many of their defensive assets on Crosby.
As important as keeping Crosby's and Malkin's offensive impact to a minimum will be, the true key to the series should be the play of the Canadiens' own offensive stars. Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn will all have to hit the scoresheet regularly if the Habs are going to have a chance. Expecting Halak to stop 98% of the shots he faces is unrealistic and a recipe for a quick exit.
Overall, this should be a compelling playoff series. With the elimination of the top 3 seeds the Eastern Conference has opened right up, and any of the 4 remaining teams has a legitimate shot at reaching the Stanley Cup Finals. The Canadiens have a tough road to hoe to take out the defending Stanley Cup champs, but as history has shown us (as recently as last night), a hot goalie can change the equation significantly. Time will tell if the Canadiens can pull off another miracle, but you can bet the hockey experts won't be so quick to write them off this time around.