MONTREAL – Heading into Game 7 of the NHL playoff series between Montreal and Pittsburgh, a reporter asked Maxim Lapierre “What’s the key?”
”It’s a little metal thing you use to open the door,” the Montreal forward said, and after a pause for comic effect added: ”Really, it’s passion, heart. It’s the team that wants it most that’s going to win.”
The pesky Lapierre is one of several Canadiens who is bringing a lot of both as the eighth-seeded team in the NHL Eastern Conference plays the role of giant-killer in the playoffs.
The Canadiens upset first-place overall Washington in seven games in the first round, coming back from a 3-1 deficit in games, and now have forced a deciding seventh game in Pittsburgh on Wednesday night with a 4-3 victory on home ice in Game 6.
The story of the Cinderella Canadiens has been their red-hot goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, and the 11 goals scored in 13 post-season games by left-winger Michael Cammalleri. He’s had six in as many games against Pittsburgh.
But success has also come from a long list of others, including the defence, veterans Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, and checking forwards like Dominic Moore, Travis Moen and Lapierre.
Together, they have limited the impact of Penguins stars Sidney Crosby, who has one goal and four assists in the series, and Evgeni Malkin, who despite some impressive rushes with the puck has only one goal and two assists.
And while Pittsburgh won the series opener 6-3, the Canadiens have closed whatever gap there was between the teams so that the last three games have each been decided by one goal, making Game 7 a toss-up.
The Canadiens, even though they tend to be outshot, are looking like a much better side than the one that barely held onto the final playoff spot in the last week of the regular season.
”We knew we had a good team,” said Gionta, who has three goals and three assists in the series. ”It was just a matter of putting it together.
”We’ve had pieces out of the lineup all season long and again (Monday) night, it was tough to be without (Hal) Gill, but (Jaroslav) Spacek came back in the lineup and he had an extremely good game. That’s been happening all year?guys are down, guys step up. We’re finally getting a true taste of what this team’s all about.”
A surprise has been that Montreal got this far after losing their top defenceman, Andrei Markov, to a knee injury in Game 1.
They played Game 6 without six-foot-seven rearguard Gill, who had been a force in blocking shots and clearing the front of Halak’s net. But Josh Gorges stepped up with six shot blocks, while gifted 20-year-old P.K. Subban, who was only called up from the minors six games into the first round, played 29 stellar minutes.
There was no word from coach Jacques Martin on Tuesday whether Gill, who suffered a skate cut behind his left knee in Game 5, would be back for Game 7, although it is likely.
Lapierre is among the players who have picked up their games in the post-season.
The speedy centre was a key player in 2008-09, when he scored 15 goals and emerged as a strong defensive forward and all-around pest.
But after having surgery last summer on an ankle, he struggled to find his speed this season and looked to be playing himself out of the lineup. His production dropped to seven goals and seven assists, and even his attempts to put off opponents with yapping on the ice and starting skirmishes after whistles looked forced and ineffective.
But in Game 6, the Montreal-area native was in the Penguins face and scored his third goal of the playoffs and second in three games on a dash down the left side, a deke on Alex Goligoski and a deft slide of the puck past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The third-period goal turned out to be the game-winner.
”Max is enjoying his role,” said Martin. ”He has a big impact with the assets he has?speed and his ability to go to the net.
”His overall game has picked up and that’s nice to see. I think it means a lot for him to play for this organization. At times this year it was probably hard for him because he’s French-Canadian and he really cares. I think it’s a plus for a player to care.”
Lapierre was nearly the goat in Game 6 of the first round, when the game officials decided to reinterpret the rulebook and send him off twice for diving without also penalizing an opposing player for a foul, which is unheard of. But the Canadiens rallied to win.
”You never count a guy like Max out,” said Cammalleri. ”We’ve all had years where things didn’t go as well as you’d like and he’s been so great for us in the playoffs.
”And he probably has to deal with a lot of that stuff off the ice that some of us don’t, so hats off to him.”
The Canadiens will open the Bell Centre to fans to watch the game on the giant scoreboard for a $7.50 admission charge, while bars all over the city are expected to be packed with fans anticipating another upset.
A win would put Montreal into the conference final for the first time since 1993, when they won the last of their 24 Stanley Cups.
”All the experts expect (Pittsburgh) to win?that puts the pressure on them,” said Cammalleri. ”If we win, we excite, if they don’t win, they disappoint.”