-- At any time, Montreal can be among the toughest places in the NHL to win.
Come the spring, with a Stanley Cup hanging tantalizingly in the distance, the Bell Centre -- home to the Montreal Canadiens
-- becomes a seething cauldron of hostility that can break the character and spirit of the most experienced and playoff-hardened hockey team.
And it is that arena into which the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins
willingly place themselves for Tuesday's Game 3, looking to take back home-ice advantage in a best-of-7 Eastern Conference Semifinals series tied at 1-all after Montreal's 3-1 victory Sunday afternoon.
"I think that there is something special about playoff hockey for a lot of the reasons," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma
said Monday before his team departed for Montreal. "And one of them is, and it's a big one, road buildings are crazy. They're out of this world.
"You have a tough time talking on the bench and (with) the atmosphere in the building. This one is going to be one of those experiences."
Actually, this trip to Montreal will be unlike any other the Penguins have undertaken in runs to the past two Stanley Cup Final series. Sure, they have played, and won, in great hockey towns like Ottawa and Detroit; but never have they competed in a place where hockey is so deeply ingrained in the culture as it is in Montreal.
This city eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. The men that wear the CH logo on their chests are heroes of the highest order. Those that oppose this team of superheroes are, simply, villains worthy of scorn and disdain.
To a man, the Penguins have heard the horror stories awaiting a visiting team tasked with making a trip to La Belle Province in the postseason. Some, like grizzled vet Bill Guerin
, have even lived through the experience.
Others on the Pittsburgh roster have reveled in the spring-time atmosphere that grips Montreal when the home-town team is hunting for another Stanley Cup. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
, wingers Maxime Talbot
and Pascal Dupuis
and defenseman Kris Letang
all grew up in or around Montreal.
Captain Sidney Crosby
, meanwhile, grew up in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, as a huge fan of Montreal -- a fandom set before his birth when the Canadiens selected his father, Troy, as a late-round pick in 1984. Troy, a goalie, never made it to the NHL, but family loyalty to Les Habitants was guaranteed.
"I think my best memory must have been when they won the Cup in '93," Fleury said, "I think I was old enough to understand, I was watching hockey a lot. Patrick Roy
was a guy I loved to watch. And it was pretty special to see them win the Cup that year."
Both Fleury and Talbot spoke of memories of that Cup celebration in 1993, the last time Montreal has been able to win a championship, and of the unbridled joy and civic pride that gripped the populace.
In fact, they experienced a little slice of that particular hockey reward last spring upon claiming the Stanley Cup with the Penguins. Each of Pittsburgh's four Quebecois players brought the Cup home to the Montreal area during his personal visit with the Cup in the summer, making the city Cup crazy during those visits.
But that tease only whetted this city's appetite to add to the 24 titles already on the team's legendary resume. Now that Montreal has knocked off the top-seeded Washington Capitals
in an unforgettable first round that saw young goalie Jaroslav Halak
step into the rather large goalie skates of past playoff heroes Roy and Ken Dryden, Montreal is awash with optimism about this run.
Talbot knows just how optimistic the city is against the defending champs. His mom is a high-school teacher there. His dad works on construction process. Both are receiving good-natured attacks from a fan base feeling confident for the first time in recent memory.
"(My mom) has bets with all these students and everything on whether the Habs will win," Talbot laughed. "So, it is fun for us and our families. She's cool with it. She can take the heat. She likes to do it.
"What is fun about Montreal is that you look at last year and we felt like the whole Quebec was behind the Penguins and now you have the Penguins against the Habs; so it is special for the fans."
"I believe our guys are ready. Going to Montreal is a great opportunity for us. I've played there in the playoffs two or three times now and it's an amazing building to be in." -- Bill Guerin
It is also special for the players.
Guerin has been around the playoff block a few times, winning two Cups in his long career. He has the pulse of this Penguins room. He knows guys like Talbot, Dupuis, Letang, Fleury and Crosby are jumping out of their skin for the chance to shine on hockey's ultimate stage.
He is OK with that enthusiasm and does not believe it will be a distraction for a team that has won each of its last five playoff series on the road as well as all three road games it has played in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"I think the guys who are from the Montreal area are excited to go back," Guerin said Wednesday. "But being excited and being ready are two different things. I believe our guys are ready. Going to Montreal is a great opportunity for us. I've played there in the playoffs two or three times now and it's an amazing building to be in."
Bylsma, born outside of Detroit, went through a similar situation last year when the Pens played against the Red Wings, a team Bylsma passionately supported in his youth. He knows this experience in Montreal will be even more intense for his French-Canadian players. But, he also knows this is an opportunity they will embrace.
In fact, he hopes his whole team embraces all the mayhem Montreal offers in the next 72 or so hours. He knows it will only make his club better when it returns for Game 5 in Pittsburgh on Saturday.
"I'm going to enjoy the atmosphere in Montreal," the coach said. "You have to relish playing in situations like this, and we're going to treat it as such."