PITTSBURGH, Pa. – First the Capitals, now the Penguins. The Canadiens, the team with the worst regular-season record in the playoffs, keep sending home the NHL’s best.
Brian Gionta had two power-play goals, Mike Cammalleri scored his seventh goal of a series in which he upstaged Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Montreal built a stunning four-goal lead before beating the Penguins 5-2 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Wednesday night.
Believe it, Canadiens. Disbelieve it, Penguins.
Montreal, about the last team anyone would have picked to beat the top-seeded Capitals, much less the reigning NHL champion Penguins, accomplished what no team has done since the current playoffs format was adopted in 1994. And that’s beat the Presidents’ Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion in successive rounds as an eighth-seeded team.
“We played Washington and we were supposed to get killed and we played these guys and we were supposed to get killed,” defenceman Hal Gill said. “It’s nice to be part of a team that gets things done.”
When it ended, the Canadiens crowded around goalie Jaroslav Halak, who made 37 saves in a performance not quite as dominating as that in Montreal’s 2-1 elimination win of Washington, but one that sent the Penguins home and shut down the NHL’s oldest arena.
The Canadiens move on to the Eastern Conference finals against Boston or Philadelphia. The Flyers beat the Bruins 2-1 on Wednesday night to force Game 7.
“I don’t claim we’re this great team, I don’t claim we’re perfect and I don’t claim that everything we do is on purpose,” Cammalleri said. “I think we’re just finding ways to win.”
The Canadiens trailed 3-2 in the series before rallying to win the final two games, and they finished the upset in style. They silenced the standing room crowd of 17,132 in the last game played at 49-year-old Mellon Arena by seizing a 1-0 lead with only 32 seconds gone after Crosby took a bad penalty on his first shift, then built it to 4-0 with barely 25 minutes gone.
“I was stunned,” Crosby said. “I don’t know how that’s a penalty 10 seconds into the game.”
In Montreal, the game was shown to a standing-room-only crowd at the Bell Centre.
Fans cheered at each image of the puck being cleared from the Habs’ zone. They roared every time it entered Penguins territory.
And the sight of Cammalleri’s goal literally prompted them to bow in the direction of his flickering, digitized likeness.
Their loudest boos were triggered when Crosby complained to the referees, pleading for a penalty after he was wrestled to the ice.
The post-game celebration in Montreal turned ugly when hundreds of youths tossed bottles and cans at police, smashing store windows and looting various downtown businesses. Police said they made about 25 arrests.
Gionta scored on that Crosby-created power play, Dominic Moore made it 2-0 later in the period and Cammalleri scored his playoff-leading 12th goal at 3:32 of the second.
“Who would expect it? Nobody gave us a chance and here we are,” Halak said. “Right now we are going to the conference final, so we should enjoy it.”
The tone was set when Crosby was called for driving Josh Gorges into the boards with 10 seconds gone – it was Pittsburgh that took the bad penalties, made the wrong decisions, stood around as the other team skated past them.
“It’s definitely disappointing,” Crosby said. “Game 7, anything can happen and, unfortunately, we weren’t at our best.”
When Travis Moen scored on a short-handed breakaway by skating past defenceman Sergei Gonchar, who offered no resistance, and wristing a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury, it was 4-0 with 14:46 remaining in the second, and it looked to be over. It was for Fleury, the Game 7 star of last year’s finals against Detroit, after giving up four goals on 13 shots. Brent Johnson replaced him.
Chris Kunitz and Jordan Staal beat Halak for goals later in the second period, and the lead wasn’t quite so secure.
The teams began the third period skating 4-on-3 for a minute, followed by a 50-second Penguins power play, and Crosby nearly got the Penguins withina goal, only to be denied by Halak in close only 25 seconds into the period.
That might have been the biggest of Halak’s saves, as the Canadiens weathered that flurry and later made it 5-2 when Gionta got his second of the game, and seventh in the playoffs, with 10 minutes remaining.
Right about then, the Penguins realized they were defending Stanley Cup champions no longer. The Canadiens ran out of the clock and after the traditional handshakes, many fans remained to watch a video tribute to the nation’s first and only retractable roof indoor arena. Mellon Arena is expected to be torn down, sometime after the Penguins move across the street into Consol Energy Center this fall.
“We’ve been talking about a lot, ‘Let’s make sure we play the last game at this rink,'” Cammalleri said. “That’s a cool piece of history for us.”
This wasn’t the way the Penguins wanted to go out.
Maybe they simply didn’t believe a team like the Canadiens could do it, much like the Capitals couldn’t. Maybe it was fatigue – the Penguins have played 300-plus games the last three seasons, advancing to the finals in 2008 and winning them in 2009. While they did, they’ve enjoyed only two calendar months without hockey since September 2008.
“I’m not going to sit here and complain about playing in Stanley Cup finals and Olympic gold medal games, that’s a good problem to have and you’ve got to deal with it,” Crosby said.
Crosby and Malkin were handcuffed throughout the series by Montreal’s suffocating, turnover-forcing defence. Defenceman Hal Gill, injured for Game 6 but back for Game 7, was on the ice for nearly every Crosby shift, and the NHL’s regular season goal scoring co-leader managed only one goal in seven games. So did Malkin, even though Montreal played the final six games without its top defenceman, Andrei Markov (knee).
“They beat Washington, now they beat us,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “I think it’s time to give this team some credit for what they’ve done, rather than picking apart why we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
NOTES: The Penguins were 2-0 in Game 7s during their Stanley Cup run last season, winning both on the road. … Montreal is 13-8 in Game 7s, Pittsburgh is 7-5. … The Penguins will move into the Consol Energy Center next season. … The Canadiens also played the first game in Mellon Arena, then known as the Civic Arena, winning 2-1 on Oct. 11, 1967.
With files from The Canadian Press