CANADIENS at PENGUINS
Season series -- Pittsburgh won three of the four regular-season meetings, outscoring the Canadiens 9-2 in a pair of victories at Mellon Arena and 15-9 overall. The Penguins and Canadiens have met once before in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with seventh-seeded Montreal knocking off No. 2 Pittsburgh in six games during the 1998 playoffs.
Big story -- The Canadiens made history by becoming the first No. 8 seed to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit, knocking off the heavily favored Washington Capitals with a nail-biting 2-1 decision in Game 7 on Wednesday. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak stopped 131 of the 134 shots he faced in the final three games of the series while Michael Cammalleri led the offense by scoring in all 7 games and finishing with 10 points.
Canadiens -- Montreal is still trying to process its historic win against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals. But there is precious little time to rest on its laurels. Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals starts less than 48 hours after Wednesday's dramatic win.
"It's crazy how fast it comes," defenseman Josh Gorges told NHL.com. "I think that is a good thing for us. We're coming off a high in that last series -- three wins in a row -- and we have to use that emotion we've had just recently and carry it through.
"Pittsburgh has been rested for a couple of days and they are going to come out flying and we know that, but we have to use this emotion we're on. I don't think anyone in this room will say we're tired. We're all excited."
Montreal used the red-hot goaltending of Halak, a dominating penalty kill -- which allowed just one goal in the entire series against Washington -- and some timely offense, especially on the power play, to fashion the upset.
Now, Montreal must come up with a plan to defeat the reigning Stanley Cup champions. Thursday, coach Jacques Martin said his team would be ready, despite having precious little time to game plan.
"I think whatever you are given, it's important that you deal with the facts," Martin said. "We had a day off today and tonight we'll have a meeting to get the group thinking and start focusing on this series and skate tomorrow morning and be ready to compete tomorrow night. We know this is a big challenge, but we're here to compete and we know this is going to be a great series."
Penguins -- Sidney Crosby was the first-round story for the Penguins. The captain, one of three finalists for the Hart Trophy announced earlier Thursday, had 14 points in the six-game series, the best of his already legendary career and the second-best total -- behind iconic Mario Lemieux -- in franchise history.
But the Penguins also showed incredible depth in the first round as 12 different players scored goals. Third-line forward Matt Cooke had two goals in Game 6's come-from-behind victory in OT. Jordan Staal had the primary assist on Pascal Dupuis’s series-winning goal.
That depth will provide a far more stern test for a Montreal defense that kept Alex Ovechkin and company in check for long periods of time in the most recent series. Plus, it is an unrelenting offense that attacks from all areas of the attacking zone, a philosophy that could give Halak, the Canadiens hero, fits. Halak had a 4.20 goals-against in two regular-season meetings against Pittsburgh.
"I think sticking to the game plan is more important than just preparing for a goalie," forward Bill Guerin said.
Who's hot -- As mentioned, Crosby had a dominating first round against Ottawa, scoring 5 goals and adding 9 assists, all in the first five games of the series. Cooke had three goals in the first round, including two rebound goals as the Penguins clawed back from a 3-0 deficit in Game 6. Evgeni Malkin has struggled some during 5-on-5 play, but has been a force with the man advantage.
For Montreal, it has been all about Halak, who has a .978 save percentage since being reinserted as the starter in Game 5 against Washington. Cammalleri had 5 goals and 5 assists in what was a dominating first-round performance.
Injury report -- For Pittsburgh, both Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz are considered day-to-day, although both took part in Thursday's strenuous practice. Defenseman Jordan Leoplod (concussion) also skated Thursday, but is still wearing a no-contact jersey. … For the Canadiens, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek (ill) is still considered day-to-day. He skated the morning of Game 7 against Washington, but could not go come game time.
Stat pack -- Malkin, last year's playoff MVP, has averaged better than a point per game in each of his past five playoff series, recording 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) in 30 games. He had 8 points (4 goals) against Ottawa in the last round. … In his three-game stretch of dominance to close out the Washington series, Halak stopped 37, 53 and 41 shots, respectively, in Montreal's three elimination-game victories to capture the series. Halak improved to 10-0-1 this season when facing 40-or-more shots. … Montreal's penalty kill survived 32 of 33 shorthanded situations in the series against Washington. Amazingly, the Canadiens had two shorthanded goals to Washington's one power-play goal. Receiving the most shorthanded ice time were Gorges (4:44 per game) and fellow defenseman Hal Gill (4:42), ranking fourth and fifth in the League, respectively.
Puck drop -- Can the Canadiens carry over the momentum gained from winning three-straight elimination games? More importantly, can they figure out a way to counter Pittsburgh’s 1-2-3 punch down the middle of Crosby, Malkin and Staal? For Pittsburgh, do they hold the key to solving Halak? Regular-season numbers suggest it might be possible. And do they have the patience to wade through Montreal's suffocating defense, which features a healthy dose of trapping and a willingness to contest every shot. If not, they could go down 1-0 for the third straight series, dating back to last year's Stanley Cup Final victory against Detroit.