So maybe Bob Gainey was a genius after all.
The former Montreal Canadiens captain who stepped down as general manager on Feb. 9 did a thorough housecleaning after the team was swept by Boston in last year's playoffs, changing about half the team through trades and free agent signings.
The goal was to get players with Stanley Cup experience, and big defencemen Hal Gill, forwards Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez and Travis Moen were key contributors in a seven-game upset of the top-ranked Washington Capitals in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
The reward for knocking Caps star Alex Ovechkin out of the post-season: A date with Sidney Crosby and the defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who ousted Ottawa in six games.
So the Canadiens will be underdogs again when the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal begins Friday night at Mellon Arena.
Pittsburgh won the first three meetings, including a 6-1 blowout on Oct. 28, but all came in the first half of the season when the Penguins were hot?and the Canadiens, without injured top defenceman Andrei Markov, were still finding themselves. In the last meeting on Feb. 6, Montreal won 5-3 and chased Pens goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the second period.
It is only the second time the teams will have met in the playoffs. Montreal beat the Pens in six games in 1998.
Fleury can look awkward and allow some weak goals, but the 2003 first overall draft pick has shown he can also raise his level and win big games when needed. In this series, he'll be up against the hottest goalie in the playoffs?Jaroslav Halak, who held the vaunted Washington attack to one goal in each of the last three games of an improbable comeback from a 3-1 series deficit.
Halak is in a zone in these playoffs and represents Montreal's best hope for another upset.
A year ago, Gill teamed with Rob Scuderi on Pittsburgh's shut-down defence duo. Now Scuderi's in Los Angeles and Gill will be up against his old teammates with Montreal. His new partner is Josh Gorges and they were key in stopping Ovechkin and the Caps' snipers. Each team has a blue-line ace?Markov for Montreal and Sergei Gonchar for the Pens.
Of concern for Montreal is whether Jaroslav Spacek, who forms a tight pair with Roman Hamrlik, will return from a virus. If not, talented rookie P.K. Subban may see more action. It appears Pittsburgh will have Jordan Leopold back from a head injury. With Brooks Orpik providing the muscle, Pittsburgh's defence probably matches the Canadiens' evenly.
There is nothing in the NHL quite like the Pens' big three centres?Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal?and they will be more than handful for Montreal's Gomez, Tomas Plekanec and Dominic Moore. The Habs are at least a match on the wings, with Mike Cammalleri, who had 10 points against Washington, joined by Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn.
But everything starts at centre. Crosby followed his 51-goal season with 14 points in six games against Ottawa. Malkin has the size and talent to take over a game. And Staal is a force at both ends of the ice. Each team also brings its pest?Matt Cooke for the Pens and Maxim Lapierre for the Habs?to keep the refs busy.
The Canadiens had the second-best power play in the regular season and carried that into the playoffs with six goals on 30 chances against the Caps. But the big story was their penalty killing unit, which allowed the NHL's top power play only one goal on 33 chances.
The Penguins were 19th with the man advantage in the regular season, but scored at an impressive 25-per-cent clip against Ottawa. The trouble is, their penalty killers allowed Ottawa to score seven goals on 22 chances and now they face a better unit. Montreal's right point man Marc-Andre Bergeron willno doubt have his cannon loaded.
Last year, Dan Bylsma was the new guy who stepped in for the fired Michel Therrien and took the Pens to a Stanley Cup with a seven-game win over Detroit. The year before, Therrien's Pens had lost to the Red Wings in the final. Bylsma seems to have found a way to keep his stars productive while not neglecting defence. Crosby has had an unforgettable season and that reflects well on his coach.
Montreal counters with low-key veteran Jacques Martin, who preaches defence first and both attacking and defending in five-man units. His moves worked against Washington, like promoting Moen to a top line and taking Bergeron off the defence.