Thursday, May 13, 2010

Montreal Miracle part 2

Who were those guys, anyway?

Montreal's regular season record was no indication of a contending team. Right up until the last days leading into the first round of the playoffs, their spot was still up in the air. But the regular season has little do with the playoffs, it seems, as Montreal came back for an incredible victory over the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

This team has been through some strange things to get here. The firing of their coach, a disappointing 2009 centennial year marked by pomp and ceremony but little else, trades that made a lot of people unhappy, the Captain debate, the French debate in the locker room, the Laracque affair, the size issue and the goaltending debate. Not to mention the constant pressure of playing in the boiler cooker that is the city of Montreal.

How can you explain the rise of this team from an 8th seed to an upset over the two greatest teams in the Eastern Conference? Nothing short of miracle.

Who were these guys, anyway? Weren't they too small, too disorganized, too separated by language and culture? I guess anything can be overcome in the quest for the Cup.

Montreal pulled off a historical and astounding victory last night which put an end to the Mellon Arena in the same way that it began, with a loss to Montreal. This probably isn't the legacy that they were planning on leaving, and I'm guessing that nobody is more surprised than the Pittsburgh Penguins themselves.

But it was hardly a surprise on one hand. Even though the stats and the logic weighed in on the side of the Pens, the Pens themselves started to show cracks when they came to the sad and sudden realization that the Canadiens wouldn't die. This was shown most clearly in their Captain.

So goes the ship, so goes the Captain.

The frustration level of Sidney Crosby was a sure-fire indication that this team was starting to doubt itself. His displays of bad, unsportsmanlike behavior were not like him at all. Even his contact with the media, which has never been what you would call dynamic, have been subdued and non-committal.

His worst contact with the media had to be the loser speech that he gave at the press conference before game 7 where he touchily said that "the series is tied, nobody's losing." His lips may have said that, but his eyes said otherwise. You could see very clearly in his body language that he was not believing it. You don't need to be a head doctor to know what this type of defensive posture and stock phrase speech means. If the Captain doesn't believe, who does?

Who were those guys, anyway?

Not to take anything away from Montreal's great defensive play and goaltending, but the Pittsburgh Penguins were not quite their mighty selves. They seemed to cycle a lot for very little gain and their own defense was scrambling mad. The Pens played a highly chaotic and disorganized game, which they were fated to lose after letting the Habs put them in a 3 point hole. If you have to spend that much time playing catch up, you will never get a lead.

Their stars were quiet. Their game was messy. And the true kiss of death was when they pulled Marc-Andre Fleury. This kind of move sends a clear message to the other team: we're afraid. While it is often a mercy move to take out a goaltender after letting in multiple, and sometimes weak, goals, it's just deadly in a game 7 when the other team starts to smell fear.

The Habs capitalized on that fear. They rode a wave of momentum so high into that game 7, fueled by the love of their fans and their previous glories, and their belief, that they simply took away Pittsburgh's will to win.

Who's Next?

While the two first rounds were formidable upsets, there may be an anti-climatic feeling when it comes to facing Boston or Philadelphia. These two teams were seeded much closer to Montreal in the regular season and they're hardly what you would call star power. Sure, they've got Chara and Pronger, but these are not the household names or multimillion dollar draws of the likes of Ovechkin or Crosby. The fact that they had to beat those guys to get this far is incredible; the fact that they did is even more stupefying.

But don't take these two teams lightly, whichever one it is in the Eastern Conference Final. Both teams play gritty games and some of their players, whom you wouldn't expect, can be the difference-makers. It would be great to see them face off against an old rival like Boston, a team with lots of history and a propensity to beat the Habs. This would be another great revenge. But the best part of that series would be the goaltending matchup with Rask and Halak. With these two guys playing up to their full potential, there's no telling what could happen.

Boston, like Montreal, is not a high scoring team. There's very little chance that this match up will result in any high scoring affairs. Both teams can play a very good defensive game as well. The big challenge, of course, will be defending the Boston Captain, Zdeno Chara. This is where the size debate may also re-occur. If they beat them, it won't.

If Philadelphia wins the series to face the Habs, it will be a touchy, pesky affair. The Flyers play a scrappy game and they like to rough it up when things don't go their way. But with their goaltending issues, it's not likely that they will face off.

How far can they go?

Montreal has already come further than anyone could have expected them to, well, except maybe Cammaleri, who's looking pretty chipper these days. It just goes to show you that anything can happen in sports, and that's why you have to keep watching.

If you had said in March that this was the year that the Habs would have a Cup run, nobody would likely have believed a word. Now that they are where they are, it's not such an unbelievable statement.

Somebody call up Canadian Heritage and let them know that there may still be a Canadian team in the Finals. This may be something that they would like to know.

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