Habs gain respect the hard way

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - When the Montreal Canadiens knocked top- seeded Washington out in the first round, everybody wanted to talk about how Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals collapsed. As if the eighth-seeded Habs did nothing but sit back, watch and reap the benefits when Washington imploded.

After they ousted the defending Stanley Cup champions in Round 2, it's become impossible to ignore the Canadiens.

Montreal came back from a three games-to-one deficit to defeat the Capitals in seven games during the opening round, so the Habs weren't supposed to have anything left for Sidney Crosby and the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins.

As it turns out, Montreal never really appeared to be overmatched by the two-time defending Eastern Conference champions, standing toe-to-toe with the Penguins and ultimately eliminating Pittsburgh in Game 7 on Wednesday night.

To make it even sweeter, the Canadiens' triumph in Game 7 will also stand as the final game in the history of Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena. Brian Gionta, and a few other Montreal players, referenced closing down the Igloo as additional motivation.

Brian Gionta, above, and Michael Cammelleri have accounted for nearly half of the Canadiens' 39 goals in this postseason.
Now the Canadiens are one of four NHL teams that will still be playing hockey in Round 3. Not bad for a team that is not only the No. 8 seed in the East but also the 16th-ranked club out of the 16 playoff teams entering the postseason.

So, just how have the Habs been able to do it? With a total team effort on defense, timely goal-scoring from Gionta and Michael Cammelleri, and superb puck-stopping from Jaroslav Halak.

Halak, Gionta and Cammalleri are getting much of the credit for Montreal's postseason upsets, and rightfully so. Cammalleri and Gionta, with 12 and seven goals, respectively, have accounted for nearly half of the Canadiens' 39 goals in this postseason. Halak, meanwhile, has stopped 420 of 450 shots thrown his way for a mind-boggling .933 save percentage.

But, as cliche as it sounds, this truly has been a team effort for the Canadiens. Cammalleri and Gionta are providing most of the offense, and Halak is taking care of business at his end, but in between are a group of guys that have completely bought into the system put in place by head coach Jacques Martin.

This emphasis on team was clearly illustrated in the series victory over Pittsburgh. Already without defenseman Jaroslav Spacek since early in the Washington series, the Canadiens lost their top blueliner Andrei Markov to an ACL tear in Game 1 against the Pens. Of course Markov's injury meant more responsibility for defensemen like Hal Gill and rookie P.K. Subban, but Martin also needed his forwards to step up and help slow down Pittsburgh's relentless offense.

And that's just what Montreal did, the club came together and made it their sole purpose to frustrate the Penguins and it worked time and time again.

"We just all have this feeling that if something doesn't work out or goes wrong, it's OK because you know that someone is going to be there to back you up," said Gill. "That's what a good team does."

The good news is Spacek returned for the final two games against Pittsburgh, and there is speculation that Markov could return for the next round after it was originally believed he would miss the rest of the postseason.

The important thing is that the Canadiens have already proven to themselves that they can beat the best without Markov. The Habs have learned how to share responsibility, and that has made their sum total as a team much greater than the individual parts that general manager Bob Gainey has cobbled together.

"This started coming together for us in the second half of the season," said Martin. "They've learned how to overcome adversity. They've learned to play together."

Still, there are those who wish to reason away Montreal's accomplishment, believing that the Penguins were simply worn out after reaching back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals and winning last year's title in seven games against Detroit. That sort of logic borders on the disrespectful, and will likely only serve as a reminder to the Canadiens that they must work for every last bit of respect.

Although the Caps and Pens bowing out to an eight seed is what garners the headlines, the story is no longer about the vanquished giants of the East. It is all about the Canadiens, and not the Montreal dynasty of old, but of this current group of Habs, who have seemingly built up enough confidence to last them for a run at 25th Stanley Cup title.

"I think after the Washington series we knew were onto something here," said Montreal forward Scott Gomez, who knows about winning it all, having been a part of two Stanley Cup titles with the New Jersey Devils

"The dance has only just begun and we've got our ticket. I've got a couple of rings and you need a little luck to get there. But like I've been telling the guys: this is when the fun starts."


Of course, before the Canadiens' fun begins, they have to wait for their opponent in the Eastern Conference finals. The only thing Montreal can be sure of at this point is that, as an eight seed, it will start the next round on the road, a fact that didn't seem to scare the Habs in their first two series.

Philadelphia will visit Boston for Game 7 on Friday night and the Flyers are chasing a special piece of history. The Bruins, on the other hand, are desperately trying to skate away from a dubious distinction.

The Flyers have forced a Game 7 despite falling behind three games to none in the conference semifinal series. Philly is just the sixth team in NHL history to push a series to seven games after facing a 3-0 deficit and on Friday at TD Garden, the Orange and Black can become just the third team to win a series after losing the first three games. Of course, the last team to pull off that feat was the 1975 New York Islanders, who rallied to beat Pittsburgh in the opening round that year.

Obviously, Philadelphia has the momentum in this series, but this has been a close series throughout and Game 7 should be no different. The Flyers and Bruins each have an OT win in this series and both clubs have won a pair of games by one-goal margins.

Whatever way Game 7 happens to go, either the sixth-seeded Bruins or the No. 7 Flyers will have home-ice against Montreal in the conference finals. Not that either club will need the extra motivation for Friday's game.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo
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