PITTSBURGH, Pa. – When Hal Gill finished last season by hoisting the Stanley Cup in a Penguins uniform, he was hoping to spend a few more years winning in Pittsburgh.
It didn’t work out.
The Penguins did not offer Gill a contract when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1, and the Montreal Canadiens scooped him up with a two-year, US$4.5 million contract.
Now Gill has the ultimate opportunity to prove his former team was wrong to let him go when the Canadiens begin their Eastern Conference semi-final series in Pittsburgh on Friday.
“That’s the idea,” Gill said Thursday at the team hotel as the Canadiens got a day off from practice. “Every shift you have something to prove, especially in the playoffs playing against your old team. It’ll be fun. It’s a huge challenge for our team. We have a lot to prove.”
The Canadiens improbably knocked off the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals with a thrilling 2-1 win in Game 7, becoming the first No. 8 seed to comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
But things will not be getting any easier for the Cinderella Canadiens as they prepare to face the defending Stanley Cup champions.
After being given the responsibility of checking two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, Gill and his defence partner Josh Gorges will likely have the task of trying to shut down Penguins captain and playoff scoring leader Sidney Crosby.
“It’s not an easy road, but that’s the playoffs,” Gill said. “They’re the best teams in the league. You have to play the best and beat the best.”
While the Canadiens split the regular-season series against the Capitals, that is not the case with the Penguins.
Montreal was 1-3-0 against the Pens and were outscored 15-9 in the four games. Crosby always brings his best against the Canadiens?his favourite team growing up?and this season was no different with four goals and two assists in the four games.
Pittsburgh also has a number of Quebec natives who seem to get up for playing the Habs with goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, forwards Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot and defenceman Kris Letang.
“Montreal’s on fire, we know that,” Talbot told French sports network RDS. “They’re excited that the team made the second round, so it’s up to us to put some water on that fire.”
Letang went so far as to say that since Montreal beat the top seeded Capitals, it makes the Canadiens the better team in the series.
But Gill said too much is made of players getting up for the Canadiens, because that?s often the case for just about every opponent they face.
“They have a lot of guys from Quebec and Sid grew up, I think, loving Montreal,” Gill said. “You know what? Everyone loves to play against Montreal. It’s the biggest game in town when you’re in Montreal and it’s a huge deal, so why would he be any different?”
If anyone is properly prepared to face Crosby, it would have to be Gill.
He was traded from the Maple Leafs to the Penguins at the 2008 trade deadline and went through back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup final in Pittsburgh, so Gill got a heavy dose of Crosby everyday in practice.
Gill says Crosby is a different beast than Ovechkin because of the variety of tools in his toolbox. Against Ovechkin, the Canadiens properly identified his bread and butter moves and tried to take them away from him.
It won’t be as simple against Crosby.
“Sid’s got a pretty good repertoire of moves,” Gill said. “He’s got a pretty good backhand and he sees the ice with his backhand. You can’t overplay him. That’s the biggest thing. I think against him and more than anyone else, you have to be really good as a team. You let somebody slip through the cracks and he’ll find him. (Ovechkin)’s very different from Sid in that respect. Sid has so many moves. He’s resourceful.”
The Canadiens will have to be as well if they want any chance of knocking off the defending champs.