Wed May 12 10:13pm EDT
It was a throwaway line at the end of a television interview for Montreal Canadiens winger Brian Gionta(notes), but the sentiment resonated: Wouldn't it be neat if the Habs closed out Mellon Arena with a Game 7 victory?
Their comments spoke to the fact that the Canadiens, advancing to the Eastern Conference final as the No. 8 seed and the 16th-best team in the postseason points-wise, played Game 7 like creatures of opportunity.
Seizing on Sidney Crosby's(notes) penalty just 10 seconds into the game with Gionta's power-play goal. Winning the first 10 minutes, and adding another goal in the first period. Then, in the second, opening up a 4-0 lead thanks to the incredible Michael Cammalleri(notes) and Travis Moen(notes), chasing Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) meekly from the crease. No team had ever overcome a four-goal deficit to win a Game 7; it still hasn't.
The Canadiens wanted this moment, while the Penguins seemed less desirous to have it than desperately afraid to concede it. They were unfocused and tight. They played like a team worried about surrendering the semifinal series to an underdog, a Cup to history and the final game in their glorious old barn to a road team.
In the end, as they shook hands with the victors in Bleu, Blanc et Rouge, they had done all three.
Outside of the whereabouts of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin(notes), the most frequently asked question about the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 will be "why they hell did they play so poorly in the first 20 minutes?"
But what really ought to be asked is, "How does Montreal start so well?"
The Habs scored first in nine of their 14 playoff games, won seven of them and lost one of the other two in overtime. This aggressive, efficient and focused play set the tone in the majority of their playoff games: Allowing the Habs to settle comfortably into their defensive system, not having to expend extra energy on the comeback. It's been an essential part of their postseason success, and they repeated the formula Wednesday night.
Also essential: Jaroslav Halak(notes). Two goals on 39 shots, just one shy of his magic number of 40. They didn't need him to be superhuman in the first 40 minutes, but they needed him to save the day in the final 20. It can be argued Game 7 was won when Halak made stops on Crosby and Malkin early in the third; either goal would have popped the roof off the Igloo.
For Pittsburgh, the knives should rightfully be out for Fleury, guilty of a couple of soft goals that put the game out of reach -- another argument against his status as a big-game goalie, no matter how many times he attempts to disprove the knock.
And they should be out for Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, too. Their Game 7 stats:
Five of Malkin's shots arrived in the third period, while four of Crosby's did. The rest of the game they were stifled again by a Montreal system that has now silenced five of the top 19 scorers in the NHL over 14 postseason games.
And that's the story, isn't it? Not Pittsburgh's failings but Montreal's fable.
No one, at all, expected this team to win two rounds and two Game 7s, against Alex Ovechkin(notes) and then Sidney Crosby. Yet here they are, eight wins away from bringing the Stanley Cup back to Canada in the same calendar year Olympic gold was captured there.
It's a fable, but this ain't Cinderella.
This is a collection of veterans, augmented by a few terrific young players, whose efficient execution of a system and unflappable play has propelled them to unexpected heights. It's the 1995 New Jersey Devils all over again: Opportunistic scoring; a goalie who stops everything he needs to and sometimes more; and a system (orchestrated by a guy named Jacques, no less) that chokes the life out of "better" opponents.
That team has its names on the Stanley Cup. There's no longer a reason to believe this team can't do the same.