MONTREAL -- The conflict between process and results, not only in hockey but in all professional sport, can be more than an internal battle at times. When the results don't come in spite of respecting the process it can turn into a full-on war, one that can leave a team fragile.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens arrived at Bell Centre for their game Saturday mending some wounds from that mental war. Each team believed it was respecting the process, neither had been rewarded often enough for it and each was fragile as a result.
With the second half of the NHL season underway, the pressure to get results has been ratcheted up. Process alone suddenly isn't good enough, and the byproduct of a lack of results is desperation.
The Penguins and Canadiens showed that on Saturday.
The Penguins largely dominated the first 40 minutes to build a 2-1 lead, then protected that lead in the third period while the Canadiens pushed, landing 17 shots on goal without beating Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Pittsburgh's 3-1 victory was the type of game we are accustomed to seeing in March, except it was early January.
The race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs has begun.
"It's so tight," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. "Every team's so close and that's the way it's going to be from here on in. There's no easy games. But to kind of put that all together, we did a lot of different things well and it allowed us to win the game."
The Penguins left Montreal with two more points in the standings largely because they respected the process coach Mike Sullivan put in place when he took over on Dec. 12.
At the time the Penguins were a bottom-third possession team, regularly losing the territorial battle that often leads to victories. Under Sullivan, the Penguins are a top-five possession team, and the rewards are starting to come.
Pittsburgh is 5-2-2 since losing its first four games in regulation with Sullivan behind the bench. The surge has moved the Penguins within one point of the Ottawa Senators for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The burden of being a non-playoff team is slowly starting to lift for the Penguins, who were expected to be one of the NHL's power teams prior to the season.
"Every game in this League is a hard game, and it's important for us to get results with each game that goes by," Sullivan said. "We had this conversation with our guys this week, but with each game that goes by it gets harder and harder to get points. We certainly want to get results. We're focused on the process, but results are important and they're important for a lot of reasons. I think most importantly it helps to reinforce the belief that we're playing the way we need to play in order to win."
On the opposite side of Bell Centre, in the Canadiens' room, the frustration with their failure to get results was bubbling over.
Defenseman P.K. Subban used profanity in dismissing a question about scoring a goal for the first time since Oct. 24; it's something he rarely, if ever, does publicly.
The Canadiens are 4-13-0 since Dec. 2, and what was an 11-point lead in the Atlantic Division is gone. Montreal is third, five points behind the first-place Florida Panthers, and has just four more points than the Penguins, the top team outside the playoffs in the East.
During the bulk of this slide the Canadiens have leaned on the process heavily because they've consistently outplayed opponents. But the lack of results has clearly had an effect and their franchise-record 9-0-0 start to the season is now a distant memory.
If the Penguins see the light at the end of the tunnel, the Canadiens appear to be going deeper into it.