Montreal defenseman Hal Gill’s success neutralizing Alex Ovechkin and the high-flying Washington Capitals in the opening round of the postseason should come as no surprise to anyone.
|Former Penguins defenseman Hal Gill will have the task of defending Sidney Crosby. |
Gill performed the same role the last two springs for the Penguins when he helped man the blue line during back-to-back runs to the Stanley Cup Final. In fact, Gill was so solid in his own zone that he was one of the five players tabbed by Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma as Pittsburgh protected their 2-1 lead in Game 7 against the Red Wings.
While the 6-foot-7 blueliner might have traded the black and gold for the bleu blanc et rouge and sweater No. 2 for No. 75, Gill’s work against Ovechkin and Co. proves he didn’t leave behind his defensive savvy when he left the Steel City for Montreal over the summer.
“He has been a very big part of our team this year,” Montreal head coach Jacques Martin said. “All season long he has been one of our leaders on the penalty killing units. He has been one of our leaders in the dressing room. He has brought many facets to our team.”
“He was definitely one of the stars of the first series,” said Penguins forward Bill Guerin, one of Gill’s best friends. “He has proved time and time again that he is a valuable commodity to that team. He really stepped his game up again and did a great job against some talented guys.”
Actually, Guerin’s assessment of Gill’s play against Washington could be considered a bit of an understatement when you take a look at how he pretty much made Capitals’ superstars Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom all but irrelevant over the final three games of the series – all Montreal victories.
Through the first five contests in round one, after which the Capitals held what looked to be an insurmountable 3-1 advantage, Backstrom was averaging almost two points per game (9 points in five games) while Ovechkin had eight (4G-4A). Over the final three games, when the Capitals high-octane offense scored a grand total of three goals, Ovechkin picked up just a goal and an assist, while Backstrom’s point total equaled yours and mine – zero.
Yes, a lot of the credit should go to Canadiens netminder Jaroslav Halak, who played out of his mind while stopping 131 of 134 shots, but the way Gill frustrated the Capitals by denying their time and space cannot be overlooked. Whether it was with his stick, skate or shin pad, Gill was like a human brick wall blocking shots, which came as no surprise to his former head coach.
“He is a big body, has a great stick and can block shots,” Bylsma said. “He is never out of a play. He will keep doing everything that he can to block a shot or take away a scoring chance. With a guy on the rush, he’s going to lay it down. He does a lot of things to play defense.”
While one would think that the task would get easier for Gill and his partner, Josh Gorges, after eliminating the Presidents’ Trophy winner from the regular season, but when your reward for such a historic comeback is the defending Stanley Cup champion, that’s certainly not the case.
“It’s not an easy road but that’s the playoffs,” Gill said. “These are the best teams in the league. You have to play the best to be the best.”
Gill will see the best when he undoubtedly matches up with NHL postseason scoring leader Sidney Crosby
, whom Gill had the chore of defending every day in practice during his year and a half in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t know how much that can help you, but I have seen a lot of the plays he can make and the moves he does,” Gill said. “Sid has a lot of tricks up his sleeve – a lot of moves he can pull out. You have to be on your toes. You have to play a good gap on him and take away as much as you can.”
Gill said that defending Crosby won’t be the same as marking Ovechkin because of the differences in how the two attack the offensive zone. Whereas Ovechkin likes to skate the puck down the left wing and fire away from all angles and distances, Crosby is a little more patient and willing to use his teammates rather than force shots that just aren’t there. Crosby also makes himself more difficult to defend because he has no fear at all getting his shots from the high traffic areas in front of the net.
“He has a lot of weapons,” Gill said. “He can make a pass on his forehand and his backhand. He can take a shot on his forehand and backhand. He’s fast. He gets low. He is good around the net. He is a pretty solid player all around.”
While Gill will log a majority of the minutes against Crosby, especially when the series shifts to the Bell Centre and the Canadiens get the last change, both Gill and Martin realize it will take a team effort if Montreal is going to slow Crosby down.
“To play against him you have to play as a team,” Gill said. “If you get puck focused on him, then he will hit someone else. He is a tough guy to play against. It’s going to be a challenge.”
“It’s a big challenge to neutralize a player like a Crosby or (Evgeni) Malkin,” Martin said. “When you look at elite players it is usually a responsibility that doesn’t just fall on one individual but it’s a team responsibility. You need your defensemen to be effective and in the right position, but you need your forwards helping out.”
Perhaps because he witnessed the Penguins incredible depth firsthand during the 44 postseason contests he spent with the team during the ’08 and ’09 runs, Gill doesn’t just appreciate what players of Crosby and Malkin’s ilk can do when they get too much time and space. He understands how the Canadiens have to stop the entire Penguins lineup because if too much attention is paid to the two-headed monster, there are waves coming behind those two ready to attack, which is something else the Canadiens didn’t have to deal with as much against the Capitals with so many of their secondary sources struggling to score goals.
“We are going to have to cover lanes,” Gill said. “We have to play very well as a team. That is what made us successful as a team. I think we have to do that – if not better – against these guys. They are a team that moves the puck really well. They have a lot of team speed. They cycle the puck well. They don’t really have any weaknesses. We have to find a way to play really solid against them.”