-- The Pittsburgh Penguins
are built around the best one-two punch up the middle in all of hockey.
Being able to trot out Sidney Crosby
, who shared the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for 2009-10 with 51 goals in the regular season, and Evgeni Malkin
, who won the Art Ross
and Conn Smythe trophies during Pittsburgh's run to the Stanley Cup last season, is an unbelievable luxury for coach Dan Bylsma
But what happens when those two superstars become punchless?
In this case, the heavily favored defending champions find themselves in a dogfight of epic proportions against an underdog Montreal team that is the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference and didn't punch its playoff ticket until the final day of the regular season.
"I don't really dwell on the ones you miss or put in. You try to treat every chance differently and make the most of it. Those things, those habits and everything you practice, that's when those things come into the game. You've got to trust your skill and trust what you do. You know what? He made the save and that happens. Like I said, you can't really dwell on it."
-- Sidney Crosby
This incredibly entertaining Eastern Conference Semifinal series heads into Game 5 Saturday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS) deadlocked, 2-2. As a result, the Canadiens have a legitimate chance to pull off a second-straight monumental upset. In the first round, Montreal erased a 3-1 deficit against the top-seeded Washington Capitals
, a team that finished 33 points higher in the standings and scored 101 more goals than the Canadiens. How? By suffocating Washington's star-driven offense.
Now the Canadiens are employing the same strategy against Pittsburgh, using the shut-down defensive pair of Hal Gill
and Josh Gorges
and the brilliance of goalie Jaroslav Halak
to leave Malkin and Crosby shaking their heads.
"They are probably frustrated right now," Halak said after stopping the final 32 shots in Game 4 Thursday to allow his team to rally for a 3-2 victory at Bell Centre that evened the series.
Crosby and Malkin have reason to be frustrated, as their goal droughts are reaching epic -- for superstar-caliber players -- proportions. Crosby has not scored in five postseason games, dating to Game 5 of the first round against Ottawa. During the regular season, he only went four or more games without a goal three times.
Crosby does have 3 assists against Montreal, but all have come on the power play. He has just eight shots on goal in this series, with five coming in Thursday's loss. And more troublingly, he is a minus-2 in this series.
Crosby said Thursday night that he could feel the production coming, pointing to the chances his line generated in Game 4.
"Yeah, tonight I thought we generated good (chances) consistently," Crosby said. "I don't think it was a flash here and there -- throughout the game we had chances. That's playoffs. You an analyze it all you want, but it's execution and that's the difference."
And Crosby did not execute. He had a chance to tie the game in the third period when he found the puck on his stick to the right of a scrambling Halak, but could not get his shot off quick enough or place it high enough to beat the red-hot goalie.
"It was a good thing he didn't put it upstairs," Halak said.
Instead of lighting the red lamp and relieving the pressure on his team, Crosby added just another entry in its growing litany of frustrations. But he denies such close calls are starting to weigh on him mentally.
"I don't really dwell on the ones you miss or put in," Crosby said. "You try to treat every chance differently and make the most of it. Those things, those habits and everything you practice, that's when those things come into the game. You've got to trust your skill and trust what you do. You know what? He made the save and that happens. Like I said, you can't really dwell on it."
Malkin has been in a similar funk. Yes, he scored the game-winning goal in the 2-0 victory in Game 3, but that tally came on the power play, as have four of his five goals this postseason. Malkin's last even-strength goal came in Game 3 of the Ottawa series, a stretch of 161:55 of ice time. He has managed 15 shots against Montreal, but has just the power-play goal to show for it.
The Penguins, though, have yet to push the panic button despite the struggles of their "Big Two."
"I haven't seen them show much frustration," said Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik
. "I think both those guys know it's going to be one of those series. The way (the Canadiens) play, they rely on their goalie a lot and the special teams have to be good. If your special teams are going to win you games then that's the way we've got to win games and I think that's all they care about."
Pittsburgh has liked what it has seen from Crosby and Malkin in the man-advantage situation. Pittsburgh scored 4 power-play goals in Game 1 and netted the Game 3 winner on the power play.
"I think Sidney, his line, in the power play was in the offensive zone doing the things we need him to do and he needs to do to get those chances," Bylsma said. "And we have to stay focused on that and get even better in those areas."
But the Penguins know they also have to get better in even-strength situations -- especially when their game-breakers are on the ice. Crosby believes that success will come for him if he just keeps plugging along and defiantly ignores the string of zeroes cluttering his goal ledger at the moment.
"You try to make sure you are doing your part," Crosby said. "I wouldn't change anything. Honestly, I wouldn't change what I am doing out there. All you try to do is try to do the right things and get the results."