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Can Habs pull off another upset vs. Sid, Pens?

by Staff

This ought to be a wild one if for no other reason than combining Sidney Crosby, a graduate of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Canadian hero, with all the passion and lunacy that is hockey in Montreal.

And based on the first-round upset of the Washington Capitals, you can make a strong case that the legendary "ghosts" of the fabled Montreal Forum have made their way to Bell Centre.

The regular-season series, won 3-1 by the Pens, may not tell us a lot about this series since the Canadiens are on quite a roll thanks in large part to the stirring play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who stopped everything but the kitchen sink in the last three games against the Capitals. The Penguins are an equally talented offensive team thanks to Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Alexei Ponikarovsky. They also have playmakers on defense like Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang, so Halak should feel right at home, setting the stage for another dramatic series.

Sidney Crosby drove the train for the Penguins in Round 1, scoring 14 points in a six-game ouster of the Ottawa Senators. He scored in every contest but Game 6 and managed 5 goals in the series. The 14 points is the most Crosby ever has scored in a playoff series and the second-most in Pittsburgh franchise history behind only the iconic Mario Lemieux.

But Crosby does have plenty of help up front. His usual linemates -- Guerin and Kunitz -- each have won multiple Stanley Cups and each scored timely goals in the Ottawa series. Malkin, the MVP of last year's playoffs, has had a slow start to this tournament, but remains a world-class game-breaker with his unique combination of skill and size. Jordan Staal might be the best third-line center in the League because of his ability to play a shut-down role against any line while still chipping in offensively. It was his tenacious work on the forecheck in overtime of Game 6 that set up the series-winning goal.

That goal was scored by veteran Pascal Dupuis, one of several role players the Pens have at their disposal. Maxime Talbot, the hero of Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last year, is another. And Matt Cooke is an agitator made for the grind of playoff hockey. He scored two rebound goals in Game 6 as Pittsburgh fought back from a 3-0 deficit, and finished the series with 3 goals.

All told, 10 of Pittsburgh's forwards registered at least one goal in this series, highlighting the incredible depth coach Dan Bylsma has at his disposal.

Ignore Mike Cammalleri at your peril. He had 5 goals and 5 assists in the seven games against Washington. Tomas Plekanec (4 goals, 3 assists) also is a dangerous scoring threat. Andrei Kostitsyn (3 goals, 3 assists) had a strong series against Washington and the diminutive Brian Gionta (2 goals, 2 assists) plays like a former Canadien, John LeClair. A series against the Pens should see Scott Gomez (1 goal, 3 assists) become a much more dangerous playmaker.

Dominic Moore and Travis Moen are strong defensive players and penalty killers. And keep an eye on Glen Metropolit, who played in only five games in the opening round, but should be nearing full strength now.

Pittsburgh possesses a veteran group of defenders. Heck, even the youngsters on the blue line have been through a ton of big games already in their short careers. Gonchar is the leader, quietly playing huge minutes every game and confidently running the point on the power play. He finished the Ottawa series with 6 points and a plus-7 rating.

Brooks Orpik seamlessly has stepped into the primary stopper role occupied so ably last postseason by the tandem of Rob Scuderi and Gill. Orpik plays almost 25 minutes a game and is playing a far more controlled form of hockey in his own end.

Youngsters Letang and Alex Goligoski had their ups and downs in the first round, but each delivered some clutch scoring. Letang has been a revelation in a more pronounced role this postseason. He is playing more than 25 minutes a game and surprised Ottawa with his ability to perform under a withering forecheck.
Mark Eaton is the unsung bedrock of Pittsburgh's rotation, eating up more than 23 minutes a game and rarely making a mistake. Veteran Jay McKee stepped into the lineup in Game 3 -- after an injury to Jordan Leopold -- and held his own quite nicely.

Andrei Markov plays all night, averaging over 26 minutes per game. He will see a lot of Crosby. Ditto for former Penguin Hal Gill, whose long arms and wide body should get up close and personal with Malkin. Gill played 21:24 per game against the Caps. Josh Gorges also sees over 20 minutes per game and can expect more of the same against the Penguins.

Jaroslav Spacek was limited to three games by a virus in the first round, and the Canadiens need him to bounce back in a hurry because of his experience.

Marc-Andre Bergeron can score (1 goal, 2 assists), but also struggle, as evidenced by his minus-8 against the Caps. Roman Hamrlik has plenty of experience, with over 1,200 regular-season NHL games under his belt.

A new wrinkle is rookie P.K. Subban, who was summoned from the minors and played in two games against Washington, picking up an assist.

Marc-Andre Fleury has the proven pedigree of a champion after last season's stellar playoff performance. But he has had an up-and-down start to this postseason. Fleury was shaky in Game 1 against the Senators, letting in a couple soft goals, allowing dangerous rebounds and generally fighting the puck as Ottawa stole home-ice advantage.

But as is his pattern, Fleury followed a bad game with some absolutely stellar play to allow his team to take control of the series with three-straight wins. He was good in the triple-overtime Game 5 loss and held Pittsburgh in Game 6 after giving up three goals in the game's first 30 minutes. Pittsburgh scored four unanswered goals, the last in overtime, to win the game and end the series.

Fleury finished the Ottawa series with a 2.75 goals-against average and .890 save percentage. He has proven he is capable of more and Pittsburgh hopes to see it in the next round.

Halak's first-round stats are a bit misleading. His 2.46 goals-against average seems high, but remember, he gave up three goals in the 5-1 loss in Game 3 and six goals in the 6-5 overtime loss in Game 2. After replacing Carey Price to start Game 5, Halak allowed the high-octane Caps three goals over the next three games to forge one of the great comebacks in Stanley Cup Playoff history.

In Games 5, 6, and 7, Halak allowed three goals and made 131 saves.

Dan Bylsma has done most everything right in his short tenure as Pittsburgh coach. A late-season replacement as a first-time coach, he provided Pittsburgh with calmness and stability as it righted its ship and marched to the Stanley Cup in memorable fashion last year. Now he is back to try to repeat after guiding Pittsburgh through a turbulent regular season.

Bylsma's biggest attribute may be his seeming unflappability. He did not panic after Fleury's struggles in Game 1 and he held the course in Game 6 after Pittsburgh lost 48 hours earlier in triple-overtime, momentarily giving Ottawa momentum as the series returned to Canada.

With a veteran, offensively explosive team at his disposal, Bylsma is content to roll his lines in predictable fashion. But he does have a knack for getting matchups when he wants them, especially with the Staal shut-down line. Bylsma also has a keen sense of when to double-shift Crosby and/or Malkin to get them going and is not hesitant to put them on the same line to generate instant offense.

During the regular season, Jacques Martin didn't earn rave reviews as Montreal limped into the playoffs with a 39-33-10 record and allowed more goals (223) than they scored (217). But there were extenuating circumstances as the Habs had over 260 man-games lost with injury. Now, with a relatively healthy lineup, he engineered the biggest upset of the first round, using strong goaltending, players who blocked shots all over the ice, and timely offense to win.

The Penguins' power play came around in the first round after some struggles during the regular season. Against Ottawa, the power-play unit clicked on 25 percent of its opportunities, repeatedly punishing the Senators when they made mistakes because of a lack of discipline or over-aggression. Pittsburgh scored seven man-advantage goals in the series, including three by Malkin.

Pittsburgh undoubtedly spent a good portion of its layoff on getting its penalty-killing unit back into shape. After being one of the League's dominant shorthanded teams, the wheels fell off the Penguins' man-down unit against Ottawa; Pittsburgh finished the series with an anemic 68.2-percent success rate.

Montreal connected on 20 percent of its power-play chances against the Capitals, netting six goals on 30 power plays, so the Penguins may want to avoid any unnecessary penalties.

The Canadiens were brilliant killing penalties against the Capitals in Round 1, erasing 97 percent of Washington's power plays. In 33 chances, the Caps converted just once, a huge reason why Montreal won the series.

Matt Cooke, Penguins -- Usually in the spotlight for the wrong reasons, Cooke showed how valuable he can be when he is on his game. He scored 3 goals against Ottawa, with two coming in the decisive Game 6 comeback. Cooke started the rally from a 3-0 deficit with a rebound goal, and then made it 3-3 with a carbon copy of that goal in the third period. Cooke scored both goals in Game 6 by going hard to the net and causing problems for the Ottawa defense. When he plays that straight-ahead game, he is tough to contain. Plus, he has an abrasive edge that can be taxing during the course of a long series.

Jaroslav Halak, Canadiens -- These are not the "Flying Frenchmen" of old, with no dominant scoring stars, so the onus will be on Halak to take the measure of another strong offensive team. He is in a groove most goalies only dream about and his confidence is at an all-time high after such a dominant last three games against the Capitals. Also factor in how Halak's strong play boosts the confidence of his teammates and he becomes the main man for the Habs in just about every way except scoring goals.

The Penguins will win if … Sidney Crosby stays hot. When Crosby is going like he was in the first round, this is a team that almost is impossible to stop because of the matchup problems they present down the middle of the ice. Despite his youth, Crosby already is among the game's best leaders and winners, with a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal added in the past calendar year to an already impressive resume.

The Canadiens will win if … Halak remains the star of the series and the Canadiens are able to mount an effective counterattack. Montreal also must remain strong on the penalty kill and chip in with the man-advantage. Getting Malkin frustrated would be a sound strategy and allow Montreal to concentrate more fully on Crosby, who figures to take his game up another notch in the charged atmosphere of Montreal.

Shawn P. Roarke and Phil Coffey contributed to this report.
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