PITTSBURGH – The poise of a Stanley Cup champion was on display Saturday night.
Not surprisingly, it was the champion, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who emerged victorious in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Semifinal at Mellon Arena, gutting out a 2-1 victory against Montreal that gives them a 3-2 lead in this best-of-7 series -- and two opportunities to introduce the Cinderella-like Canadiens to playoff midnight.
MORE: HALAK SOLVED? | KID STILL STRUGGLES
The Penguins took a long hard look at themselves Saturday morning and admitted they hadn't been good enough through the first four games of this series -- particularly in a 3-2 loss in Game 4. Not good enough as a team, and not good enough as individuals.
On Saturday night, they started making amends when it mattered most.
They played the team game that defined their march to the Stanley Cup. They paid attention to fundamentals and willingly paid the price to go to those dirty areas of the ice that so often pay off in goals.
"They were trying to get more traffic in front of me, and there was always somebody," Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak said. "It was how they scored their goals. The first one I couldn't see. I think it went through our guy. The second one was the same thing.
"We need to do the same thing. I think we made it easy on their goalie. We had no traffic and we need to do the same thing like they did against us."
Pittsburgh's first goal, by Kris Letang at 18:18 of the first period, found its way past Bill Guerin and Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who were in a turf war just feet from Halak's crease.
Guerin has won two Stanley Cups because of his willingness to do just that. On Saturday, he did it despite missing the past two games because of injury
The second goal, by defenseman Sergei Gonchar at 9:50 of the second period, came with Mike Rupp stationed a mere foot or two from Halak, ignoring the rather rude efforts of two Montreal defenders to relocate him.
Letang, by the way, was responsible for the winning goal in Game 4 as Montreal's Brian Gionta banged a pass off Letang's skate and past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury early in the third period for what would prove to be the game-winning goal.
Not surprisingly, both players came back with huge games Saturday night, showing the poise that they learned -- and earned -- in a 24-game march to hockey's highest summit.
"Everybody, I think, realizes the situation here," captain Sidney Crosby said. "Hopefully, those guys don't put too much pressure on themselves. Things happen. We are all in it together and we all have to bounce back as a team. Individually, they are competitive guys. They have a lot of character and they showed that tonight."
Evgeni Malkin, the MVP of last year's playoffs, showed his character by picking Saturday night to play like the best player in this tournament. Despite just a primary assist on the goal by Letang, Malkin was a dominating player throughout the game, putting the Canadiens on their heels with his unique combination of speed and brute strength.
"When he takes it to that level it's really, really hard for other guys to stop him," Guerin said. "Even two guys he's going to make it difficult on you. If he's not taking it to the net himself he's going to find somebody. If he gets in that zone of playing it's really difficult for the other team."
Fleury also made it tough on the Canadiens, playing perhaps his best game of the playoffs to date. He did not allow a goal until their were just 30.5 seconds remaining, surrendering a 6-on-4 goal to Mike Cammalleri that ruined his bid for a second shutout in three games. Fleury registered a 2-0 shutout in Game 3 in Montreal.
"He's been that guy for us," coach Dan Bylsma said. "He's proven that he's a guy who bounces back and is focused after a tough loss, a bad game or in big situations.
"He's done it before. He did it in Game 3 and he did it in Game 5. It was a big performance from him."
t was a big performance by the whole Pittsburgh team and it puts the Penguins in charge of a series they are supposed to win. Montreal, which has already won three elimination games, must now win two more.
They may have to do it without their most important player after Halak -- defenseman Hal Gill. The big, punishing blueliner, who has done the lion's share of the work that has resulted in Montreal holding Crosby without a goal in this series, left the game in the third period with a lower-body injury. Coach Jacques Martin said Gill will be evaluated again on Sunday.
"We're ready to go home and play another game," said Cammalleri, who now has 9 playoff goals. "We just need to win one game at home and we're right back where we were."
Shift of the game: It wasn't really a single shift, but a series of shifts that Evgeni Malkin turned in during the middle of the second period. Malkin dominated the ice three straight times off the bench, and although he did not get a point on the goal by Sergei Gonchar that made it 2-0, he set up the scoring play by possessing the puck despite the attempts of several Montreal players to take it away. On another of the shifts, Malkin beat three Montreal defenders to fire off a shot that tested goalie Jaroslav Halak.