-- Amazingly for a Pittsburgh team loaded with skill at every position, there is a legitimate argument that it is the Penguins' foot soldiers up front that have delivered them to their first clinching game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Pittsburgh has the chance to win another series on the road, this time against the Montreal Canadiens
, in Game 6 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS) at the Bell Centre because the Pittsburgh forwards have punished the opposition on the forecheck at every turn in this series.
Through five games of this series, Pittsburgh has delivered 142 hits, a devastating toll of more than 28 per game.
"In the playoffs, you have a team for such a long series. That is what you are trying to do, is get it to pay off in the later games," Penguins forward Chris Kunitz
told NHL.com while discussing his team's forecheck strategy Monday morning. "You can't know for 100 percent that it is going to work."
But Pittsburgh is starting to get a pretty good idea it is paying off as they look to close their sixth-straight series on the road, a streak that runs all way back to the first round of last year's march to the Stanley Cup Final.
The most tangible evidence of the toll Pittsburgh has exacted comes in the fact that Montreal will have trouble fielding a representative blue line for the most important game of their season.
, their top defenseman, suffered a knee injury in Game 1 after absorbing a hit by Matt Cooke
barreling in on the forecheck in the first period. He apparently tore his ACL after falling awkwardly in the aftermath of the hit.
Hall Gill, who has done an admirable job in holding Sidney Crosby
without a goal in this series, is a game-time decision after suffering a lacerated leg in a tangle-up with Kunitz in Game 5.
Even the Montreal defensemen still in the lineup have been under constant duress as the Penguins come screaming into the zone every time the puck is dumped into the Montreal zone.
"Our mentality is put the puck deep, go after them, get the puck back and try to have puck possession in their end and go after some rebounds," said Kunitz, who has 20 hits in this series, including seven in Game 5.
"It's kind of the wear-down factor. If you do it over and over there might be a turnover because guys are going back and might hear footsteps. It's just something you want to do. A lot of their (defensemen) are playing big minutes and you can wear them down. If it's one check in the first game that makes them slower in the fifth or sixth game, it's something that you have to do."
It is not an easy assignment, often extracting as much of a toll on the forechecker as it does on the defenseman that has to turn his back on the play and go chase a puck behind the net or into a corner.
Yet, the Penguins rarely ease up on their pressure in the attacking zone. Kunitz, Cooke, Craig Adams
, Bill Guerin
, Mike Rupp
-- they all make a beeline to the corners on every shift, forcing Montreal to pay a steep price to alleviate pressure. Heck, even Crosby planted Gill, all 6-foot-7 of him, on his rear on one forecheck.
"It's something that is difficult to do, but you just have to keep going and try to break them," Rupp told NHL.com. Rupp has 15 hits despite missing Game 4. "We're looking to wear on teams, but if we can get in there and get the hits, they are maybe going to rush plays. All it takes is one bad pass and it can be on our tape and we can get a scoring opportunity off it."
And if not, they are going to be, as Kunitz suggested, one step slow to get into the corner for a puck, or one second too fast in getting rid of it to make the proper decision. In a seven-game series, those seconds can be the difference between winning and losing.
And that is why Pittsburgh once again will come with its forwards buzzing the Montreal defense at every turn
"We try to play a certain way to win four games," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma
said Monday. "They don't hand you a ticket for every game and say you guys are going win this series. You have to earn it and play a certain way. We have a clear vision of how we are going to play and we believe in playing that way. It's not about winning one game. It's a seven-game process. We are in Game 6 of that process tonight."