Pittsburgh earned a split of its Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Canadiens at Mellon Arena over the weekend, and now the series moves across the United States-Canada border to Montreal – the unofficial mecca of hockey – for Games 3 (Tuesday) and 4 (Thursday).
In addition to the increased media scrutiny and fandom that accompanies postseason hockey in Montreal, Tuesday night’s matchup at Bell Centre is yet another homecoming for the Penguins’ French connection – forwards Pascal Dupuis
(Laval, Que.) and Maxime Talbot (Lemoyne, Que.), defenseman Kris Letang
(Montreal, Que.) and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
It’s always a big deal for the players who grew up in Quebec to return to their roots against the team they grew up following, and that level of excitement should only be amplified with this being the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“For a lot of guys, this is going home,” said head coach Dan Bylsma at a media conference at Mellon Arena prior to the team leaving fro Montreal on Monday. “But I think we talk about it more because this is Montreal and there is a history with the Canadiens. Nobody asked me that question when we played Detroit last year, and that was my favorite team growing up. The atmosphere of the city and the building is unique and is something that we have to be aware of. The building is loud – we know that. That’s part of the playoffs.”
“I’m nervous in Montreal for a preseason game so imagine a playoff game,” Letang said. “The atmosphere is great. It’s a great place to play hockey. They have really loud fans. It will be a special place to play in.”
“I hope that my family and friends will still cheer for my team,” Fleury said. “Everybody is such a big fan of the Canadiens, but everybody has been nice to me so far. It should be interesting and fun to play there.”
“It's different here,” Dupuis said. “This is where I'm from. Things will be special for me. It will be a really loud building. People on the street, all they talk about is the hockey game right now.”
Perhaps inspired by playing in front of their friends and family, Pittsburgh’s French Canadians have always enjoyed playing against Montreal, as the Penguins have posted a solid 6-3-1 record at Bell Centre since the 2005-06 campaign.
Dupuis, who scored the game-winning goal for Pittsburgh in a 3-2 victory on Dec. 10 at Bell Centre, has 10 points (5G-5A) in 18 career contests against the Canadiens. Talbot, who notched a goal and an assist the first time he returned home to Montreal on Jan. 3, 2006, has eight points (4G-4A) in 16 games. Letang had a two-point night (1G-1A) in Game 1 of this series while Fleury has a 9-6-1 career mark.
“It’s going to be special, that’s for sure,” Talbot said. “For us, we grew up watching the Canadiens. … For us, during the season, we played four games against them, which were always pretty special – two in Montreal. Having a chance to play there during a playoff round is going to be crazy, fun and exciting. In the meantime, it’s going to be just another hockey game, so we’re going to have to control our emotions. It’s going to be special for families, too.”
For those who don’t know what the Canadiens mean to the city of Montreal and the sport of hockey, let’s put it into perspective. With 24 Stanley Cup championships and 17 retired jerseys hanging from the rafters, the Canadiens are Canada’s equivalent to the New York Yankees. With the Canadiens, much like it is with the Yankees, the success of a season is measured by whether or not there is a championship parade through the streets of Montreal each June.
Nobody knows this more than Fleury and Talbot, who each mentioned the Canadiens’ surprising run to a title in 1993 – the most recent time Montreal has won the Stanley Cup – as their favorite moment as fans of the blue blanc et rouge.
“I think that my favorite memory is when (the Canadiens) won the Cup in ’93,” Fleury said. “I think that I was old enough to understand it since I watched hockey a lot. It was very special to see them win the Cup that year, so I think that it will be fun to be there and play a game there, and it will be exciting.”
“’93 was pretty special,” Talbot said. “I was pretty young, but I remember watching when they won the Cup and the parade and everything. That’s probably my favorite memory.”
Led by the sensational play between the pipes of Jaroslav Halak, whose play thus far in the postseason is evoking memories of that ’93 run when Patrick Roy backstopped what many felt was an average Canadiens squad to the summit, Montreal has supplied its passionate fan base with a surprising run in 2010.
One of the last teams to qualify for this year’s tournament, the Canadiens have made sure to make some noise now that they are here. After earning a split in Pittsburgh, the raucous crowd at Bell Centre will be waiting eagerly to help the Habs make life miserable on the Penguins.
“We have had that atmosphere in different series we have played in the past – like during the Washington series last year,” Bylsma said. “We have talked about it and we are aware. We talk about the adjustments based upon certain buildings. We know it’s going to be pretty crazy in there.”
“The crowd will be that much more amped up,” Dupuis said. “We just played Ottawa, another Canadian team that was loud. They love their team.”
But sometimes that love can actually work in the Penguins’ favor, even if most of the 21,273 in attendance will be rooting for Les Habitants. You see, as much as the Montreal fans want to see their team do well, they can be quick to jump on the host team if the Canadiens get off to a sluggish start.
“It is a tough building,” Talbot said. “It is a loud building. It is a building that you go in with a lot of emotion. I think that for us, we can use that emotion, and we can use that crowd in that building in a different way. Obviously they’re going to be really loud, and they’re going to cheer for their team.
“Sometimes the crowd can go in the other way and play in your favor by getting really quiet sometimes when you’re being tough on the other team. We can use that as a momentum shift.”
While the Penguins are going to Montreal on a business trip – a sweep of the Canadiens would allow Pittsburgh to re-establish the home-ice advantage – Bylsma and veteran Bill Guerin, who is one of the few Penguins to have faced the Canadiens during the postseason, also hope to savor the experience that is playoff hockey in Montreal over the next few days.
“Going to Montreal, it’s a great opportunity for us,” Guerin said. “I’ve played there in the playoffs two or three times now, and it’s an amazing building to be in. It’s going to be a great experience for everybody. I think that we are really going to enjoy being up there. It’s business-like, but it’s definitely a good experience for everybody.”
“I think that there is something special about playoff hockey for a lot of reasons,” Bylsma said. “One of them is road building are crazy. They are out of this world. You have a tough time talking on the bench. It’s going to be one of those experiences.
“I am going to enjoy the atmosphere in Montreal. You have to relish playing in situations like this. We are going to treat it as such.”