MONTREAL -- Several members of the Montreal Canadiens felt the first two periods of Game 4 of this Eastern Conference Semifinal series were among the worst they've played during the postseason.
The Pittsburgh Penguins held the Canadiens to just nine shots through 40 minutes Thursday night at Bell Centre, but Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak kept his team afloat and enabled an improbable comeback victory.
"It was huge. He gave us that opportunity to come back and win," defenseman Josh Gorges said. "We were flat. We got the first goal, which was great, but after they scored we kind of sat back and we didn't respond. Mentally, we were off. We weren't making crisp passes and we were off with our forecheck and getting beat. But Jaro did his job -- he stood on his head and we responded in a positive way in the third period."
After the Canadiens scored the first goal, the Penguins answered less than a minute later and dominated through the end of two periods. After Halak yielded the go-ahead goal -- a power-play tally that went off Chris Kunitz's skate -- he was particularly stout in the moments which followed.
The Penguins were carrying the play and causing all sorts of problems for the skaters in front of Halak. Montreal's new favorite son had to make multiple saves on Penguins who broke in alone on him before the first period was out. Instead of Pittsburgh building an insurmountable advantage, Halak kept Montreal in it.
"They hung around. If you look at it, that is probably the difference," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "But you can always analyze different things when you lose. There's not much difference or much margin for error."
Added Montreal forward Tom Pyatt: "That was another huge performance by him. I think those first two periods were probably the worst two periods of the series and maybe the whole playoffs. We had nine shots after two periods, and that's just unacceptable."
Once Montreal did gain the lead in the third period, Halak had to make two huge saves on two of the best players in the world to seal the victory. With Mathieu Darche in the penalty box, the puck squirted to Halak's right and onto Crosby's stick. Halak hurled himself into the path of the puck and drew a raucous ovation from the Bell Centre faithful.
"I just see the loose puck over there, and I just tried to get there as soon as I could," Halak said. "It was a good thing he didn't put it upstairs."
Added Darche: "I should probably go give Jaro a kiss. He saved me when I was in the box."
Later in the period Crosby sent a pass to Evgeni Malkin, who broke in alone on Halak. Gorges dove and made contact with Malkin, but probably not enough to alter his shot. Halak calmly turned aside Pittsburgh's last great chance to level the score.
"There were a couple of guys chasing, so that probably put a little bit of pressure on him," Halak said. "He just shot it and I was there. It was a good thing."
This Game 4 was quite different for Halak than the one in the previous series against the Washington Capitals. After getting pulled in Game 3, he watched from the bench as Jacques Martin decided to start Carey Price.
Martin went back to Halak for Game 5 against Washington, and a tale that will be told in this province for decades to come began. Halak stopped 131 of 134 shots in the final three games of the series to carry Montreal to victory.
After a rough Game 1 of this series, Halak has responded with three more solid performances. He's allowed only four goals in the three games as Montreal has evened the series at two games each.
"Everybody has a job on this team, and that's why this is a team. We have to have the five plus me," Halak said. "We showed [character] already in the first round when we were down 3-1 and even tonight we were down 2-1 going into the third. We showed a lot of character. It was a huge game -- being down 3-1 or tied 2-2 is a big difference."