PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are learning what the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin discovered in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Playing the Montreal Canadiens isn’t nearly as easy as it looks.
The Canadiens were an average team during the season, finishing 16th in the overall standings and sneaking into the playoffs with a point gained from an overtime loss. If any team figured to exit the playoffs quickly and without making much noise, it was them.
Instead, they came back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Capitals?winning twice in Washington. They’ve also repeatedly frustrated the Penguins’ Crosby and Malkin while earning a 2-all tie in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Game 5 is Saturday night in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins have lost three of five during the post-season.
The Penguins, coming off a 3-2 loss in Game 4 on Thursday, are certain they know why Crosby doesn’t have a goal and Malkin has only one. The trouble, as Washington found out, is doing something about it.
“They almost let you play in their end but they keep it tight,” Penguins forward Jordan Staal said Friday. “They get in front of shots and have a lot of bodies in front, which makes it tough to get rebounds. It’s not going to be easy to score goals.”
Led by goalie Jaroslav Halak, the Canadiens are taking away what the Penguins do best. They’re eliminating odd-man rushes, permitting few rebound attempts and forcing the Penguins to work for every shot.
Halak has turned aside 94 of 98 shots the last three games, including the final 32 in Game 4.
“It’s not just Sid,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “We need to get better in certain areas to get more opportunities. We need to get focused on getting second-chance opportunities.”
Bill Guerin, perhaps the most skilled Penguins player at getting to the net, practised Friday after missing both games in Montreal because of an undisclosed injury. No doubt Crosby would welcome him back.
Much like he saw defencemen Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips nearly every shift in the opening round against Ottawa, Crosby is regularly opposing six-foot-seven defenceman Hal Gill and partner Josh Gorges. Gill, who played for Pittsburgh last season, blocked eight shots in Game 4.
“It’s a big challenge to play against those elite players night after night,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said of Crosby and Malkin. “It’s not an individual?it’s a team effort and you’ve just got to keep working at it.”
Crosby took five shots Thursday but has been limited to eight in the series. He’s yet to take over a game like he did repeatedly in the Ottawa series, when he had five goals and nine assists in six games.
“But I wouldn’t change anything out there,” Crosby said.
Crosby has failed to score a goal in only one previous playoff series, a five-game elimination of the Rangers two years ago.
“It can be frustrating for any player, especially one of his calibre,” Staal said. “It’s never a lack of effort. … It’s the playoffs and it’s tough to score.”
Pittsburgh has been outscored 6-5 since winning by three goals in Game 1. Still, Canadiens forward Scott Gomez is certain the Penguins aren’t nervous because the series is proving to be tighter and tougher than anticipated.
“No, they’re not rattled at all,” Gomez said. “Teams like that, they’re a long way from being rattled.”
Martin is expecting a big push from the Penguins to create more of an up-and-down game, like they did while winning 6-3 in Game 1.
“You look at the history of those individuals, we’ve got to be prepared to raise our level of intensity, raise our level of execution,” Martin said.