BROSSARD, Que. – Every time it seems that the Montreal Canadiens are about to be blown out of the NHL playoffs, they come back with another surprise.
After being shut out in the opening two games of the Eastern Conference final in Philadelphia by a combined score of 9-0, they answered with a 5-1 victory in Game 3 that put them back in a series that looked to be lost.
Now they hope to tie the best-of-seven series with another win Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre.
The team that barely edged into the eighth and final playoff spot in the East is 5-0 in games in which it was facing elimination. A loss in Game 3 to the Flyers would likely have put them in too deep a hole to climb out.
”We didn’t feel like we were done and finished,” defenceman Hal Gill said Friday. ”We lost two games on the road in a tough place to play.
”We got home and the fans feed us and we got things going our way. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
The Canadiens spent much of the regular season winning games most thought they would lose and losing games they were supposed to win, but their resilience has been marked in the playoffs.
Down 3-1 to the first-place overall Washington Capitals, they swept the final three games to take the opening-round series. They were down 3-2 to the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and came back to win that one as well.
It is starting to look like the Canadiens are a better team than they were given credit for all season and that the much-maligned Jacques Martin is a better coach than was thought.
In his eight years in Ottawa, Martin was mostly seen as a strong technical coach who couldn’t take a talented team to a higher level.
This season, he’s taken an unfancied collection of players who were mostly strangers to one another only eight months ago and lead them to a conference final.
Martin, who tends to deflect questions about himself, said there’s more to it than one veteran coach. The first part of what he called ”a great supporting cast” is former general manager Bob Gainey, who hired Martin last summer.
”I remember Ken Hitchcock telling me how much of a factor he was when (Dallas) won the Cup (in 1999),” said Martin. ”That’s why Bob’s been around the team since the start of the playoffs. He has a different outlook on the game and brings different ideas.”
Gainey was GM in Montreal from 2003 until he handed the job to Pierre Gauthier in mid-season, although he has stayed with the club in an adviser. He also served twice as interim head coach.
The former Canadiens captain and five-time Stanley Cup champion from the 1970s and 1980s dismantled the Montreal squad that was swept in the first round by Boston last spring and brought in 10 new players in the off-season.
Among them were four players who have won Cups—Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Hal Gill and Travis Moen—who form the core of the team’s leadership group. He also signed Michael Cammalleri, who leads all playoff scorers with 13 goals, and veteran defenceman Jaroslav Spacek. Useful winger Tom Pyatt came in the same trade with the New York Rangers that landed Gomez.
He also signed power play point man Marc-Andre Bergeron when Andrei Markov was hurt in the first game of the season, although it was Gauthier who picked up speedy third-line centre Dominic Moore for a second round draft pick late in the season.
The changes gave the Canadiens a new look and apparently added a large dose of character.
The low-key Gainey has turned down interview requests during the post-season, but he has stayed close to the team, and players like Cammalleri appreciate his presence.
”I don’t know what his exact title is now, but he’s adding so much because you can have candid conversations with him,” said Cammalleri. ”There’s a certain protocol you follow with a general manager because he’s still making certain decisions and you can’t have as candid a conversation as you’d like.
”Now him being around and being able on a daily basis to add specific insight on how we can play is pretty cool.”
Martin also mentioned his assistant coaches, Kirk Muller, Perry Pearn and Pierre Groulx, and the team leaders.
”Not to knock the leadership in Ottawa, but it’s a different leadership here from the standpoint that people like Gionta, Gomez, Moen and Gill have won the Cup and they’ve gone through the process and I think these individuals have been very helpful to the team,” he said.
Defenceman Josh Gorges, one of the holdovers fro last year’s Canadiens, is among the beneficiaries of the new leadership. He also forms Montreal’s shutdown defence pair with Gill.
”It’s not necessarily a vocal thing—it’s how they act and handle themselves,” Gorges said. ”As a young guy who hasn’t been in this situation before, you’re not always sure how to act.
”You look over and watch how calm and cool they are and when they get out there, how excited they are. It rubs off on the rest of the players.”
Game 3 was step forward for the Canadiens in that it was the first time in six playoff games they have won while outshooting their opponent. Through the first two rounds, they built a defensive wall around goalie Jaroslav Halak to hold off talented opponents and scored on counterattacks.
They have not been strong this season when they have to initiate the attack while the other team defends, but they did it in Game 3, albeit against a listless and perhaps overconfident Philadelphia squad. The Flyers are sure to be better prepared for Game 4.
The Canadiens had an optional practice scheduled Friday but ended up having the full team skate for about 30 minutes, mostly working on special teams. Bergeron’s goal in the final minute of Game 3 was their first power play tally in 14 chances in the series, and they managed to shut out the Flyers’ power play for the first time.