PITTSBURGH, Pa. – 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 favoured 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 defenceman Hal Gill (leg injury). Gill’s status for Game 7 won’t be decided until Wednesday, according to coach Jacques Martin.
With Gill out, defenceman 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.
“We know we are in a battle,” coach Dan 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.