PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Jacques Martin had some great Ottawa Senators teams that always appeared to flop in the playoffs, giving the head coach a reputation for post-season failure.
Whether that reputation was deserved or not, Martin is now shaking that stigma with the giant-killing Montreal Canadiens.
Martin’s stifling defensive scheme helped the Canadiens knock off the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins with a 5-2 win in Game 7 on Wednesday, one round after knocking out the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in seven games as well.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” Martin said in the immediate aftermath of yet another monumental upset win. “I’ve been very fortunate to coach some outstanding players, and I’ve always felt I do my best. But I really commend the players. I think we have a tremendous group in the dressing room.”
Martin entered the post-season with a career 38-47 playoff record, despite having several Senators teams that dominated in the regular season.
But Martin has installed a system in Montreal centred on the outstanding play of Jaroslav Halak in goal, and it has already given him half as many playoff-round victories as he had in nine years in Ottawa.
“You can talk to Jaro a lot about that, he’s a lot of our system, sadly,” said defenceman Hal Gill, another big part of that system along with partner Josh Gorges. “But when you have a goalie that’s making huge saves, you give them the outside shot and you try to limit their Grade-A scoring chances.”
The Canadiens have been outshot in all but three of their 14 playoff games, and both the Capitals and Penguins repeated over and over again that if they continued bombarding Halak with rubber, they would eventually prevail.
But not once did either of those teams admit that perhaps they were playing into the Canadiens’ hands by settling for longer shots, no matter how numerous they were.
“Sometimes it was goaltending, sometimes they blocked shots, it wasn’t a constant thing,” said Penguins star Sidney Crosby, limited to one goal in the series. “If it was, we would have found a way around it. It seemed like it was a different thing and they found different ways to keep it out of their net.”
Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combined to score twice in seven games, victims of a defensive plan that the Penguins readily admitted was unconventional. That followed Montreal’s successful plan to neutralize Alex Ovechkin in Round One, limiting him to one goal in the final three games of the series.
“Defence, goaltending, at the end of the day that’s what’s going to win you games,” said Brian Gionta, who scored twice in Game 7. “Josh and Hal are doing a great job against their top guys and Jaro’s doing a great job keeping us in games. The game plan is to make sure we take care of their big guns.”
That game plan continues working miracles, and the scary thing is the Canadiens are still learning it.
“I couldn’t be happier with the way in the playoffs we’ve come together, the way we’ve played and performed and the character the guys on this team have shown,” said Michael Cammalleri, who upped his league-leading playoff goal total to 12. “We’re halfway there.”
That sentiment is universal in the Canadiens room right now, that quiet confidence in what Martin is asking them to do and the belief in their ability to execute it.
It has the Canadiens thinking they’ll be capable of doing something no one thought possible: raising a 25th Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of the Bell Centre.
“We struggled with the regular season, but every day we looked at the guys we had in here and we knew what we could do,” said centre Scott Gomez. “We’re not shocked and it’s just beginning. We know we have to do a lot more and get better in certain areas. But we’re going to enjoy this now and the city of Montreal and the province should be happy right now too.”
And for that happiness, they have an embattled and vindicated career coach to thank.