MONTREAL – The Montreal Canadiens did it again?forced a decisive Game 7 against a formidable opponent.
The same two players who have been their catalysts throughout post-season were the stars, as Michael Cammalleri scored his 10th and 11th goals of the playoffs and Jaroslav Halak made 34 saves to help the Canadiens stave off NHL playoff elimination with a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night.
After coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the first-place Washington Capitals in the first round, they now have a winner-take-all shot at the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in Game 7 on Wednesday night in Pittsburgh.
“It’s reality,” said Cammalleri. “If you pinch yourself, you start staring around, and we can’t stop now.
“This is fun. We’ve got an opportunity to knock these guys off in Game 7.”
The Penguins had closed out five straight playoff series on the road, but with the best-of-seven series tied 3-3, they will now have to try to take this on home ice against a Cinderella opponent that entered the playoffs as the eighth and last-seeded team in the Eastern Conference.
And the Canadiens were without their top defenceman Andrei Markov, who went down in Game 1 with a knee injury, and played without shutdown rearguard Hall Gill, who suffered a bad cut behind a knee in Game 5 on Saturday night.
“We’re getting there,” said Cammalleri. “We’re by no means a great team, but we’re trying to be the best team we can be.”
Even though Pens star Sidney Crosby broke out of his six-game scoring drought with a goal and an assist, the Canadiens found a way to win despite being outshot 37-25. It was perhaps not a coincidence that Crosby did it while Gill was out, since more than 70 per cent of his shifts had been against the six-foot-seven blue-liner.
“I don’t think it’s time to be concerned,” said Crosby, who ended the game in a tussle with Tomas Plekanec that earned both minor penalties. “Everything that happened in the first six games means nothing.
“We’ll have to bear down and play our best. It’s one game and anything can happen.”
Defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, back after missing nine games with a virus, scored a key goal in the second frame and Maxim Lapierre added the eventual game-winner in the third period for Montreal, which won a second home game in a row for the first time in these playoffs.
Kris Letang and Bill Guerin, who scored while Marc-Andre Fleury was pulled for an extra attacker, had the other goals for the Penguins.
This game turned on Cammalleri’s second of the night. Pittsburgh led 2-1 and controlled the puck for the first half of the second period, outshooting Montreal by a nearly 3-to-1 margin.
But Halak held up in goal, and then Andrei Kostitsyn hit Cammalleri heading for the slot on a rush and he scored on a backhand shot to tie it.
As the goal was being announced, a TV time-out was called. P.A. announcer Michel Lacroix held off naming the assists and the usual commercials were put on hold as the crowd of 21,273 sensed a momentum shift and gave the home side a long, loud standing ovation, waving their white towels and singing “Ole, Ole!”
Only three minutes after play resumed, Spacek teed up the puck at the blue-line and fired it in through heavy traffic to put Montreal ahead.
“It’s fun to play in front of that,” said Canadiens forward Brian Gionta. “I thought we did a really good job of rolling with (the momentum) when it was going the other way and using it to our advantage when we had it.”
Cammalleri described the crowd’s effect as being “like they’re giving you a little push as you go up the ice.”
The crowd was in the game early as Cammalleri scored on the first shot at 1:13. Letang lost control of the puck in the neutral zone and Cammalleri worked a give-and-go with Plekanec before beating Fleury to the glove side.
That got the fans chanting Fleury’s name, but Crosby tied it at 7:22 when he fed the point and went to the net to tip Mark Eaton’s shot in our of the air.
Early in the second, Halak got lucky as Gonchar and Evgeni Malkin both hit posts during the same power play, but when Montreal’s Roman Hamrlik immediately took another penalty, Letang madeno mistake on a shot from the slot at 5:21.
Halak stoned the Penguins in the third, and checking forward Lapierre made like Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur as he crossed the blue-line, put a move on Alex Goligoski, cut in front of the net and tucked the puck inside the post at 11:03.
Cammalleri said the play was exceptional because, while protecting a lead, it was important that Lapierre keep the puck deep in Pittsburgh zone. He managed to do that and make a smart move to score.
Fleury was pulled with 1:30 left to play and Guerin reached out to tip in a Gonchar shot only six seconds later to make it a one-goal game, but they never came close to equalizing.
It was also a big game for rookie defenceman P.K. Subban, who led the Canadiens with 29:11 of ice time, while Spacek played a strong 18:25 despite missing three weeks.
“I felt better and better through the game,” said Spacek, who is believed to have had an inner ear problem, although neither he nor the team will say.
The Canadiens will open up the Bell Centre to their fans for Game 7, when for $7.50 they can watch the game in high definition on the giant scoreboard.
NOTES: Gill tested his leg in the pre-game warm-up and was not able to play, but Spacek returned and took his old spot on a pair with Hamrlik, while Josh Gorges paired with Subban. . . . . Alexei Ponikarovsky and Ruslan Fedotenko sat out a second game for the Penguins. . . The most popular non-official souvenir in Montreal these days is a shirt bearing a stop sign with Halak written on it.