Game preview #7: Canadiens - Penguins
PITTSBURGH (AP) - Improbable as it might seem, the Montreal Canadiens are playing a Game 7. Again.
As unlikely a Game 7 as that against the Washington Capitals a couple of weeks ago? Maybe. As unlikely a Game 7 as the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in the last 14 seasons? Maybe that, too.
All the Canadiens know is this: They barely made it into the playoffs, but they've taken the reigning Stanley Cup champions to the last game, just as they did the NHL regular season champion Capitals.
As the Capitals found out, anything can happen in a Game 7 - even the unimaginable.
"Game 7, it's all about passion, details, and the team that's going to want the game the most is going to win," Canadiens forward Maxim Lapierre said.
Two other heavily favored Penguins teams discovered that during Game 7 losses at home, against the Panthers (1996) and Islanders (1993). Each time, the Penguins led 3-2 in the series - as they did in this one - only to allow a team with nothing to lose the chance to play an elimination game.
The top-seeded Capitals led the eighth-seeded Canadiens 3-1 in the first round, but lost Game 7 by 2-1 as Montreal completed one of the NHL's biggest playoff series upsets in decades.
"This is a challenge for us," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Tuesday, barely 12 hours after the Penguins returned from their 4-3 loss in Game 6 in Montreal. "It's 3-3. There are some views out there this should have been an easy series. But we're not losing. It's tied. They're here."
That is the surprise - the Canadiens, who finished with 33 points fewer than the Capitals and 13 fewer than the Penguins are still here, 14 games after sneaking into the Eastern Conference playoffs by one point.
Their goalie, Jaroslav Halak, has outplayed Stanley Cup winner Marc-Andre Fleury. Their leading scorer, Mike Cammalleri, has six goals to one each for Penguins stars Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Nothing is going as expected in a series that Pittsburgh looked ready to dominate after winning 6-3 in Game 1.
"It's pretty good when people don't believe in you," Canadiens forward Maxim Lapierre said. "You get a special boost, a special energy, and we're so tight in here because nobody believed in us. It doesn't matter the way we got into the playoffs. It's a new season and the job is not done. We've got to win Game 7."
Accomplishing that likely will require Montreal to find a way to control Crosby - a finalist for the league MVP award - for one more game.
Crosby had 14 points in six games against Ottawa in the opening round, but has five points - four assists - in six games against Montreal. His only goal came Monday, when Montreal played without top-line defenseman Hal Gill (leg injury). Gill's status for Game 7 won't be decided until Wednesday, according to coach Jacques Martin.
With Gill out, defenseman Jaroslav Spacek returned after missing nine games with an illness and contributed what proved to be the decisive goal. Cammalleri also scored twice more, giving him a playoff-leading 11 goals in two rounds.
"We've got another game left and we've just got to keep going - I'm not going to get arrogant when it comes to that (controlling Crosby)," Cammalleri said. "He can do a lot of dangerous things."
The Penguins figure to be plenty desperate. A loss not only would end a season in which they were expected to make another run at the Stanley Cup, it would be their final home game in 49-year-old Mellon Arena. They will move into a new arena next season.
Their first game in what was known then as the Civic Arena? A 2-1 loss to Montreal on Oct. 11, 1967.
CANADIENS at PENGUINS
TV: VERSUS (HD), CBC (HD), RDS (HD), FSN-P (HD)
(Best-of-7 series tied 3-3)
Big story: Will the clock strike midnight for the Cinderella Canadiens? Or will the Penguins' quest for back-to-back Stanley Cups meet an early end? One of these two things is certain to happen when the teams face off in what could be the final game ever played at Mellon Arena. The Canadiens pushed the series to the limit with a 4-3 victory on Wednesday night -- they've won all the even-numbered games after losing all the odd-numbered contests.
Canadiens -- Thanks to the play of Jaroslav Halak, the eighth-seeded Canadiens refuse to go away. Halak continued his brilliant postseason by outplaying Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6, stopping 34 shots as the Canadiens won despite being outshot 37-25.
It was just another win for a team that was supposed to be playing golf by now.
"No one really expected us to be here in the first place," defenseman Ryan O'Byrne said. "You can't play tentative. You have to play loose and enjoy the moment. There're a lot of guys in this room with a lot of pride, and we're not ready to go home ready."
Penguins -- This is a game the Penguins had no interest in having to play -- they've never trailed in the series and have dominated play for the large majority of the six games. But they're not unfamiliar with playing in Game 7s -- not after beating both Washington and Detroit on the road last spring on the way to the Cup.
"I think you just try to make sure you are at your best in a Game 7," said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby, who finally scored his first goal of the series in Game 6. "That's all you can do because there are so many things that can happen. It's one game, so you try to go out there and play your best, just like everyone else and see where that brings you, see what the result is. You have to leave it all out there to give yourself the best chance."
Who's hot -- Mike Cammalleri had two of the Canadiens' goals on Monday and has scored his of Montreal's 14 goals in the series. He leads all players in this year's playoffs with 11 goals. … Halak has a .932 save percentage, the best among all goaltenders still playing this spring.
Injury report -- The Canadiens haven't had their best defenseman, Andrei Markov, since he went down with a knee injury early in Game 1. Their biggest defenseman, Hal Gill, sat out Game 6 with a skate cut and is expected to be a game-time decision on Wednesday. The Penguins are as healthy as can be expected a month into the postseason.
Stat pack -- Monday's win marked the sixth time in franchise history the Canadiens have forced a Game 7 by winning the sixth game at home. They are trying to become the first No. 8 seed to make the conference finals since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994. … Pittsburgh is trying to become the first team to make the conference finals in three consecutive years since the Boston Bruins from 1990-92. The Penguins are 2-4 at home in Game 7s.
Puck drop -- Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is hoping Mellon Arena doesn't close the way it opened -- with a Montreal victory. The Penguins began life in the NHL on Oct. 11, 1967, with a 2-1 home loss to the Canadiens at the then-Pittsburgh Civic Arena.
"We know we are in a battle," Bylsma said. "We care deeply, and we want to win desperately. ... They have certain emotions, and we have them. We both know this could be our last game. This could be the last game at Mellon."
The Penguins are 2-4 there in Game 7s, beating Washington twice but losing to the Islanders (twice), Panthers and Flyers. They are 3-3 in home playoff games this spring, but they won Game 7s at Washington and Detroit last season. Until they beat the Red Wings, no team had won a finals Game 7 on the road since 1971.
"Everyone in the building at Mellon will understand what's at stake," Bylsma said. "You're either moving on or you're going home, and I think that's one of the great challenges of playoff hockey."
AP freelance writer Sean Farrell in Montreal contributed to this report.
Press conference Jacques Martin
Spacek morning skate
20,000 fans to watch Game 7 on the Bell Centre HD giant screens
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