PITTSBURGH – The Montreal Canadiens have completely shed the Cinderella tag once and for all.
There will be no more talk of glass slippers and clocks striking midnight for the No. 8 seed. It is now time to give the Canadiens credit for what they have accomplished by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 17 years -- a drought of epic proportions for an iconic franchise that can already claim 24 Stanley Cup titles.
"You've just got to start giving credit to this team, this is a good team we lost to here." Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik said.
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Montreal transformed from interesting underdog to final four material with a dominating 5-2 dismantling of the defending champions in Wednesday night's Game 7 at Mellon Arena, winning the last game in the building's rich hockey history.
"They did a lot of good things that good teams need to do to win," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "Unfortunately for us, we didn't do that."
Pittsburgh did little right on Wednesday night -- and the Canadiens played perhaps their best game of the playoffs.
Montreal took a 4-0 lead in the game's first 26 minutes, chasing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by scoring on four of just 13 shots. After that, the visiting team did what it has all series, limiting Pittsburgh's high-powered offense with a suffocating plan in the defensive zone and relying on the brilliance of goalie Jaroslav Halak.
"The start killed us," Pittsburgh forward Bill Guerin said. "I don't really think it was the X's and O's type things. I don't know if it was nerves. I don't know what it was. It was just unfortunate for us that it went that way.
"Obviously, you have to give Montreal a lot of credit. 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."
For the Canadiens, they say it was a case of following their game plan on the most important night of their season.
"We wanted to play our game plan no matter what," said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill, who, by the way, won a championship with the Penguins last year. "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."
Now, this workmanlike Montreal team moves on to the Eastern Conference Finals, the first No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference to reach the third round since the playoff format changed in 1994. There, they will play either the sixth-seeded Boston Bruins or the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the unlikeliest of matchups. Boston and Philadelphia play a winner-take-all Game 7 of their own Friday night in a series that Boston once led 3-0.
The Canadiens began their miraculous journey to the third round with a stunning comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against Alex Ovechkin and top-seeded Washington in Round 1. They proved that was no fluke by taking down the team that many believed was the best one left standing in the tournament.
"This is unbelievable," Montreal defenseman Josh Gorges said. "It is hard to put into words right now.
"It wasn't because we had more skill than these guys. It wasn't because we did anything special. It was because we played as a team. You look around the room and everybody on this team contributed in some way. That is why it is so special. It feels so good because it wasn't a couple of guys or some individuals. It was a complete team effort."
Indeed it was.
In Game 7, the Canadiens scored two even-strength goals, got two power-play goals by Brian Gionta and even had a pretty shorthanded tally from the unsung Travis Moen. All told, nine Canadiens recorded points in Game 7.
With that said, though, a couple of big names carried the majority of the load.
Mike Cammalleri had a goal, his seventh of the series and No. 12 in the playoffs -- the most by a Canadien since Guy Lafleur in 1975 -- and Gionta had two goals, including a tone-setting tally just 32 seconds into the game while Crosby sat in the box for boarding.
Defensively, it was the duo of Gill and Gorges once again keeping Crosby and his linemates off the scoreboard. Crosby only had one goal in this series -- in Game 6, which Gill missed with a lacerated leg. Malkin did not score an even-strength tally in the seven games.
But it was Halak who stole the show yet again. He made 37 saves on Wednesday, including 18 in the third period after allowing second-period goals to Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal, as Pittsburgh tried desperately to make a comeback. After being pulled in Game 1 during a 6-3 blowout, Halak was the difference-maker in this series.
"He's been great that way," Gill said. "Obviously we are not perfect, and he has bailed us out every time we weren't."
Halak's brilliance, combined with Montreal's optimism, proved to be just the right combination to put an end to Pittsburgh's reign of dominance in the East, which included trips to the Stanley Cup Final in each of the past two seasons.
The Penguins won't play again until the fall, when they open the Consol Energy Center across the street. It will be a fresh beginning for the team that has been the class of the East for the past few years, but the painful end to the 2009 season will no doubt be present, as well.
"I don't think it has (set in), to be honest with you," Crosby said. "We all want that perfect ending. I don't think we have thought about, but it is disappointment."
Shift of the game: For Pittsburgh to make a miraculous comeback from a 4-0 deficit, it was going to come on the back of the power play it had to open the third period after the penguins had cut the margin to 4-2. The first 50 seconds of that power play were a 4-on-3 advantage, but the dynamic foursome of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar and Bill Guerin came up empty as forward Tomas Plekanec and defensemen Hal Gill and rookie PK Subban limited them two just two shots before Plekanec was able to carry the puck the length of the ice and kill the final seconds of the 4-on-3 advantage.