Pittsburgh 6, Montreal 3
Lesson to Montreal: Pittsburgh is not Washington. The Penguins showed again why they are the defending Stanley Cup champions when they beat out Montreal in what was a fairly predictable win. Many people predicted that the momentum of the big upset over the number one seeded Washington Caps would carry over into this series at Mellon Arena. Other people were relying on the seeming invincible play of Halak to phase out the Pens. I'm sure many were surprised when neither one happened.
So what happened here?
The offensive power of the Penguins is not limited to their star players and the defensive play is nowhere near as lackadaisical or plain lazy as the Washington defense often seemed in their series against Montreal. Both of these are huge factors in Pittsburgh's favour.
For the Montreal defense, it was not a question of containing just Ovechkin, since Semin pretty much contained himself, but in the case of Pittsburgh, there's Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Talbot, Guerin and Gonchar who have great scoring potential. Any of these guys can sneak into empty spaces and release huge shots from the point. And since you can't watch everyone all of the time, something is bound to happen. In terms of the Pens power play, it's often not a question of if they will score but when they will score, as their guys move so well and cycle fast. Their positioning on the power play is consistent with any typical board play you will see from coaches, getting that one guy in front of the net and keeping players on all sides. Keeping it simple, applying good pressure and getting shots on net. It's the simple, winning strategy that everyone should use, but few are as successful as Pittsburgh.
In terms of the defense, the Pens do not give you much time or space to work with and again, they move so well and so fast on the ice. They play a very tight defense in front of Marc-Andre Fleury and do a great job blocking shots. They get in the shooting lanes, doing exactly what Montreal had been so successful at doing against Washington and they are literally in the way of the attacking players. Fleury hasn't had to do much more than just be adequate in net, due to the great defensive play of the Pens and if there is any weak spot to this support, it's the fact that we hope Fleury doesn't just fall asleep one of these days while waiting for an actual shot on net to show up.
While Pittsburgh put on a great performance, it would not be fair to blame Halak for this loss. Nor do I agree with the coach's decision to replace Halak with the often shakey Price. A lot of the shots on goal for Pittsburgh were a result of their persistent and aggressive play and an inconsistent effort by the Montreal defense. The loss of Markov was also a serious blow to Montreal's chances. Let's just hope that this doesn't re-open the starting goaltender debate in Montreal, as it is clear that if Montreal wants to move forward in this series, they need the mature goaltender between the pipes.
If one of the Pens gets a major thumbs down from me, it will always be #24. Matt Cooke, the dirty, rotten, mean cheater who should have been picked up for attempted murder on Marc Savard. As per usual, he lived up to his billing as the Pens main villain and took our Markov, easily Montreal's greatest defense man and in the eyes of many Montrealers, the true captain of the team. They will feel that loss for games to come.
A final note on Pittsburgh and their resilience. They are a real team. It was not the Crosby-Malkin two headed goal scoring monster show last night. A lot of goals came from Pittsburgh's supporting cast. The loss of Jordan Staal was a blow, but even that was not enough to slow the Pens down. But what would you expect from a team whose Stanley Cup winning year motto was Sacrifice? This team hasn't lost its focus or its drive. They are out on every shift, shutting teams down and taking nothing for granted. That's why they are going to win- again.