MONTREAL – After looking overmatched in two periods against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the underdog Montreal Canadiens pulled out another playoff surprise.
Maxim Lapierre and Brian Gionta scored early in the third period and the Canadiens held on for a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to even their Eastern Conference semifinal series Thursday night.
”We had nothing happening, we couldn’t get any sustained pressure in their zone,” Gionta said of pulling off a win after two full periods of total Pittsburgh domination. ”This is big.
”To go down 3-1 to a team like that would have been an uphill battle. It was kind of a must-win game for us.”
The best-of-seven series is tied 2-2 with Game 5 set for Saturday night in Pittsburgh. The series returns to Montreal for Game 6 on Monday night.
Trailing 2-1 going into the final period, the Canadiens lifted the noise from the Bell Centre crowd of 21,273 to deafening levels as they came back to win after having been thoroughly outskated and outshot 26-9 through the first 40 minutes.
Tom Pyatt scored his first career playoff goal in the first period for Montreal while Max Talbot and Chris Kunitz replied for the Penguins.
But the star once again for the Canadiens was goalie Jaroslav Halak, who made 33 saves and stopped Pens star Evgeni Malkin on a late breakaway to preserve the win. He also handed Pittsburgh its first loss in five post-season games on the road.
It was Halak who lifted the Canadiens to a comeback victory over first place overall Washington in the first round, and whose brilliance earned Montreal a 3-1 win in Game 2 in Pittsburgh.
A shaky Marc-Andre Fleury faced 25 shots for the Penguins.
”That’s playoff hockey,” said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. “In this building, being on the road, it’s a tough place to (come back) in and they got momentum.
”We ended up getting some opportunities, but we couldn’t cash in.”
The Canadiens had used only three lines for most of their previous two games and coach Jacques Martin had a suspicion that his top players were tiring, so he made sure to roll four lines through most of the first two periods.
It paid off with secondary scoring from two checkers?Pyatt and Lapierre.
”Probably the biggest factor was that we used more depth,” Martin said. ”Maybe we were fresher.
”After two periods, we hadn’t overextended anyone. I hope you noticed (Mathieu) Darche tonight.”
Darche, who played only 54 seconds in Game 2 and sat on the bench but didn’t get a single shift in Game 3, got 8:12 of ice time and made a key play to set up Lapierre’s goal.
Pyatt got the Canadiens started wen his tight-angled shot fro the left boards hopped between Fleury’s pads only 2:34 into the game.
”It felt great, especially in a game like this,” the Thunder Bay, Ont. native said. ”It was getting frustrating not scoring.”
The festive atmosphere in the Bell Centre soured quickly when Talbot tied it on a breakaway less than a minute later after Ruslan Fedotenko grabbed defenceman P.K. Subban’s foot and brought him down at the Pittsburgh blue-line, giving the Penguins centre a free path to the net.
”I don’t know if I was tripped, maybe I lost an edge, but I went for the puck and the next thing I was on my face,” said the rookie Subban, who struggled at times for the first time since he was called up for Game 6 of the Washington series. ”I made a mistake and it cost our team, but the biggest thing is learning.”
After Hal Gill was called for holding, Kunitz scored a disputed goal on the power play as he fanned on a shot and then had it slide in off his skate. The goal stood up to video review.
The Penguins skated at will through the neutral zone the rest of the period and outshot the listless Canadiens 15-6.
Shots were 11-3 in the second as the Penguins domination continued, but their failure to beat Halak left it a one-goal game going into the third, and that’s when the Canadiens struck back with what Martin called ”the best third period we’ve had all year.”
Lapierre tied it when, after some energetic forechecking by Darche, he came from behind the net to beat Fleury to the post at 2:07.
”That was a big turning point in the game,” said Darche.
Gionta got lucky when he put Montreal ahead at 3:40. He threw the puck in front and saw it go off Mark Eaton’s stick, Kris Letang’s skate and into the net.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby had a glittering chance to tie it but was thwarted at the side of the net during a power play. Crosby, who assisted on the Kunitz goal, led his team with five shots, but went a fifth straight game without a goal and got only his third point of the series.
Notes:Penguins centre Jordan Staal was back and played a strong game with limited ice time, only two games after having surgery to repair a severed tendon in his right foot. Veterans Bill Guerin and Michael Rupp sat out with undisclosed injuries or illness. . . Jaroslav Spacek, who has been skating for a week, missed an eighth straight game with a virus for Montreal. . . It was Pens defenceman Eaton’s 33rd birthday.