The Montreal Canadiens, the story of this postseason as the pesky team that doesn't know when to quit, struck again Thursday night with another miracle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals series against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Canadiens used an incredibly optimistic goal by Brian Gionta
-- off the skate of Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang -- to take a 3-2 decision at the Bell Centre; a dramatic come-from-behind victory that evened the best-of-7 series at 2-2 and sets up Game 5 Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Few outside of Montreal thought that this rag-tag team, which barged its way into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, could find itself in a best-of-3 showdown against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
But here the Canadiens sit after Gionta's stroke of good fortune, earlier goals by Maxime Lapierre and Tom Pyatt and the continued brilliance of Jaroslav Halak, who stopped the final 32 shots he faced Thursday night after giving up two goals on Pittsburgh's first three shots.
"We have nothing to lose," Halak said. "We're not even supposed to be here. No one gave us a chance to go through the first round."
Halak guided Montreal through a first round that saw Montreal erase a 3-1 series deficit against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals. In the final three games of that series Halak limited Washington's potent offense to just three goals, stopping 131 of the final 134 shots he faced.
Thursday night, he only had to stop 32 straight to allow his team to claw back into a game in which it had no right to be in after two periods.
As the teams went to the second intermission, Pittsburgh held a 26-9 advantage in shots, including 11-3 in the second period. Yet the score remained 2-1-- and hope stayed alive in the Montreal dressing room.
"(Halak) gave us that opportunity to come back and win," Montreal 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."
Ah, the third period. It is one that will live in the memory banks of both organizations for years to come.
Pittsburgh was just 20 minutes from taking a 3-1 stranglehold in a series that it had dominated for all but two of the first 11 periods. Montreal, meanwhile, looked lost -- its miracle quickly running out of steam.
Until, that is, the Canadiens once again found a way to stay alive.
"They hung around," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who was held without a goal for the fifth game in a row despite firing off a series-best five shots.. ''I guess if you look at it, that's probably the difference.''
This time, it was depth scoring -- non-existent in this series -- that continued Montreal's quest. Fourth-liner Tom Pyatt opened the scoring just 2:34 into the game, marking the first time in the four games that Montreal scored first.
Pittsburgh, however answered with two goals -- by Max Talbot on a breakaway and Chris Kunitz on the power play -- in a 2:11 span to take the lead with just 5:18 gone in the game.
Nobody scored again until Maxim Lapierre – a third-liner – scored against the run of play in the third minute of the third period; his wraparound attempt beating Fleury to the far post and banking into the net off the goalie's skate.
But that ping-pong play was only a warmup for what was to come as 103 seconds later when Gionta's pass across the slot banked into the net off Letang's skate.
Suddenly, Montreal had the lead and the momentum -- and no matter what Pittsburgh tried, the Canadiens wouldn't surrender the lead yet again as the Bell Center crowd roared in cacophonic delight for the final 16 minutes of the contest.
"Third period, wow!" Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri said. "The momentum kind of built, and that's where the crowd can help. They were on their toes the whole period and we just fed off it and kept going."
Now the Canadiens return to Pittsburgh flying high. They know they are just two wins away from claiming the most improbable of berths in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It is an opportunity this never-say-die team is eager to embrace. Cinderella, it seems, is no rush to reach midnight.
"Once again, I go back to it; we're not supposed to be here and nobody picked us to win," Cammalleri said. "If you would have said it would be a best-of-3 going back to Pittsburgh on Saturday, I'd say why not?"
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