PITTSBURGH - Less than 15 minutes into the game, the Montreal Canadiens realized they weren't playing the Washington Capitals anymore. Not even close.
Everything that worked so perfectly against the Capitals was failing miserably against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who might exploit a weakness better than any team in hockey.
Defencemen Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski each had a goal and an assist, and the Penguins shredded the Montreal penalty-killing unit that Washington never solved in the opening round. Pittsburgh beat the Canadiens 6-3 Friday night in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Sidney Crosby set up two goals, and Jordan Staal and Sergei Gonchar also scored as the Penguins' improved power play went 4 for 4. By contrast, the Canadiens killed 32 of 33 Capitals power plays in the first round.
The secret? According to Crosby, there was no secret.
"We talked about getting traffic, we talked about getting pucks through, and we executed - that's the difference," Crosby said. "When you do the right things, you give yourself a chance. We got some good areas to get shots away. I still think we can get more shots, still think we can generate more."
Bill Guerin added an empty-net goal and had an assist as the Penguins won Game 1 for only the second time in five playoff series.
The Stanley Cup champion Penguins, winners of eight of 10 series since 2007, are in position to take a 2-0 lead in Game 2 on Sunday at home. Both teams might be without key players in that game as Staal (right leg) and Montreal defenceman Andrei Markov (lower body) sustained injuries.
The Canadiens repeatedly turned aside rush after Capitals rush while becoming the first No. 8-seeded team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit to beat a top-seeded team, but the Penguins employed a much-different strategy. They repeatedly screened goalie Jaroslav Halak and, rather than carrying the puck through traffic and into Montreal's collapsing defence, they instructed their undefended point men to keep pumping one-timers at the net.
The Penguins' first three goals - by Gonchar and Staal in the first period and Letang early in the second - all came from centre point and couldn't be stopped by Halak, who turned aside 131 of the Capitals' final 134 shots. Against Pittsburgh, he let in five goals on 20 shots.
Halak was pulled early in the third for Carey Price, several minutes after Goligoski made it 5-2 by scoring off Crosby's setup.
"They beat us in the special teams department," Montreal forward Scott Gomez said. "I mean there's a reason they hoisted the Cup last year. If you make mistakes, they're going to jump on them."
The Canadiens, playing two days after finishing off one of the biggest first-round upsets in NHL history, didn't look to be off their game or fatigued despite the quick turnaround.
"You can't use that as an excuse; if you start using that, you don't belong here and none of us have," Gomez said.
Montreal held Pittsburgh to 16 shots in the first two periods and 24 overall and kept Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from scoring, something Ottawa rarely did in the opening round. Crosby had five goals, and Malkin added four as the Penguins won in six games.
The rested and patient Penguins simply looked better - and, unlike the Capitals, better prepared. Playing for the first time in six days, the Penguins didn't remain stationary on offence and throw puck after puck at Halak the way the increasingly frustrated Capitals did.
On Thursday, Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis hinted that Montreal's penalty kill wouldn't be nearly as successful as it was against Washington. He also predicted Halak would be lifted during the series.
"We watched some tapes and just tried to exploit their weaknesses," Letang said. "Special teams always comes up big in the playoffs."
Brian Gionta had a goal and an assist, but the Canadiens never led after P.K. Subban scored unassisted on a shot from the right point with 4:30 gone. Gonchar tied it about four minutes later after Gionta's tripping penalty. Staal put the Penguins ahead to stay by cutting across the middle and beating Halak with a wrist shot at 13:27 of the first.
Staal, who has never missed a game to injury in his four NHL seasons, was hurt while being undercut by Subban near the midpoint of the second period. Markov was hurt while being upended by Penguins forward Matt Cooke as Markov was trying to control the puck along the boards.
Neither team sounded as if its injured player would be ready by Sunday.
"It's a huge loss for us," Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill said.
Staal is a Selke Trophy finalist for defensive play by a forward and almost always goes against an opponent's top line.
"He's a horse, he doesn't miss games, he's our iron man," Dupuis said. "He must have been really injured not to come back."
Markov's injury inadvertently set up the Penguins' go-ahead goal. As Markov was being attended to by trainers, two Canadiens players drew roughing penalties - only one Penguins player did - and Staal scored near the end of that power play.
Crosby stayed off for a few shifts after sustaining a facial injury in the second, but he returned later in the period.
Mike Cammalleri scored his sixth goal for Montreal, briefly cutting it to 3-2 in the second period, but Craig Adams answered late in the period to restore Pittsburgh's two-goal advantage. Adams has two goals in seven playoff games after going without a goal all season.
NOTES: Pittsburgh has won four of five against Montreal this season. ... Crosby has 16 points in seven post-season games. ... Montreal outshot Pittsburgh 31-24, but Marc-Andre Fleury made 28 saves. In the first round, Washington outshot Montreal 292-194.