One of the things that has most intrigued me about the 2010 Pens-Habs series is the coaching match-up. Both Dan Bylsma and Jacques Martin are very good at their jobs, and both understand the differences between regular season and playoff victory. They both know it's not just about heart and skill: it's about adjusting your team's game in response to how the other team plays.
We saw this at the beginning of the series: from the moment the Habs beat the Caps, all the talk coming out of the Pens' dressing room was about "shooting smart" and reducing the number of shots that would be blocked. They also worked extensively on their power play, after seeing the Caps' high-powered offense be all but shut out during Round 1 power play opportunities.
The result? A decisive 6-3 victory which included 4 power play goals, and 24 Pens shots to the Habs' 31. And only 15 shots blocked by the Habs.
Some might argue that the Habs were tired after an emotional Game 7 upset just a few nights before, but the game I watched involved the Pittsburgh Penguins buying into the game plan that Bylsma drew up, and executing it well enough to hand the Habs their panties on a platter.
This series is, and has been all along, a duel between coaches. The teams are built differently, and there are lots of things we could say about turnovers that lead to goals, bad or brilliant defensive plays, suspicious officiating, execution, and so on. At bottom, though, we find each coach's plan.
After Game 1, Martin adjusted his game plan, and the Habs won. It looked like the Pens had stopped taking smart shots, but it appeared to me that the Habs were taking away most of their good opportunities and taking charge of the play. This time, the Canadiens let the Penguins pick their shots -- over and over and over again -- but they also provided the Pens with a truncated list of options: take crummy shot A or crummy shot B, but you can't have good opportunity C.
This time, Martin's game plan prevailed.
For Game 3, Bylsma responded to Martin's adjustments, got his players on board, and the Pens once again prevailed -- with a shutout. Fleury was great and Malkin came alive, but it should also be noted that shot totals were low, and the Pens were in control.
Game 4 is a slightly different story, where two quick goals in the third period led to something of an explosion in the Bell Centre. I would have liked to have seen our guys get it together in time for a win, but that's not the way it went.
After Game 4, though, the Pens were all about traffic. "Create traffic", "get traffic in front of Halak", "set up screens". Clearly someone (i.e. Bylsma & co) took a look at the way the Habs were defending their net, and came up with a game plan. A game plan that the Pens executed marvelously. There's a reason the goals were from defensemen: because the Pens were using the Habs' collapse around the net as a screen, getting the puck to the point, and shooting past Halak.
Then, last night, the Habs abandoned their 'collapse around the net' plan for the first two periods. And during that time, the Pens continued to shuffle pucks to the point and take shots from there. But Halak wasn't about to miss those pucks, without a screen. There were plenty of juicy rebounds, but the Pens were rarely around the net to pick them up.
Not because they weren't playing well. Because that wasn't their game plan.
And in the third period? I think the Pens had figured out what was going on by then, and they started crashing the net a little more. But the wily Jacques Martin must have anticipated this, and he had his team, once again, collapsing around the net. This time, the Habs' game plan prevailed. But only just.
I don't know what Game 7 holds in store for us, but I am certainly looking forward to seeing what the coaches have up their sleeves. There are obviously plenty of factors that go into deciding a Game 7, but the foundation comes from the coaching staff. So play on, fine men: my money's on Bylsma!