Thought this might still be a short series? Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal defense ask you to think again.
Game four between the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins had a strange feel to it. Refs made some strange calls and no-calls, and there was a lot of time between whistles. Subtract the faceoffs for goals and beginning of periods and there was only 26 stoppages in play, a lot of flow and a lot of time between whistles, which made for some interesting action.
The Habs would start the scoring just 2:34 in when Tom Pyatt took an innocent looking shot from a bad angle that fluttered in past Marc-Andre Fleury. Would Fleury like that one back? Probably.
MAF's good friend Maxime Talbot would get it back for him in the next minute, when Ruslan Fedotenko dove for a loose puck (and took out defensemen P.K. Subban) and Talbot scooped up the puck, rushed it almost the whole length of the ice and beat Halak 5 hole.
Chris Kunitz would give the Pens a 2-1 lead on the power play when he took a Sidney Crosby pass off his right skate, then it clicked off his left skate and past Halak. There was no intent to kick or "distinct kicking motion" despite that it definitely hit off skates and in net. After a review it was decided the goal would count, as it was called on the ice.
That's how the score would stay through the end of the second. The Versus broadcast threw up an awesome stat: the Penguins were 25-0 in Crosby's era when holding a lead through two periods. There's a first time for everything, and unfortunately that would end up being the case tonight.
Maxim Lapierre corralled a puck behind the net and bolted to his right and beat Fleury on a wrap-around. Tie game and the Bell Centre was going crazy. Just about a minute later, Brian Gionta threw a pass cross-ice that skipped off of defenseman Kris Letang's skate and past Fleury. Try as the Pens may, they wouldn't be able to equal it.
- Notice a trend there? The Habs score two goals on innocent looking plays and the other on a quick wraparound. The lesson? Let your guard down even for a second and they're gonna pounce and try to capitialize.
- Jordan Staal 's return, less than a week after foot surgery might become a thing of legend. The Pens kept the reigns on Staal; he only played 13:24 (about 6 minutes less than normal) mainly centering a 4th line, but just to have the big guy back should stabilize things. Especially if he experiences no setbacks and is able to take on a bigger role in the future.
- Also on the 4th line was Alexei Ponikarovsky, who only played 9:38 total, and less ice-time at even strength than any skater but Craig Adams. Should Bill Guerin and Mike Rupp both be back for Game 5, it's not out of the question that Poni could find himself in the press box.
- The Pens, as usual, out-shot the Habs 35-25. The shot attempts were an even wider margin: 73 for Pittsburgh compared to just 42 for Montreal. But it doesn't matter how many shots you take, it's how many find pay-dirt. Credit the Canadiens' shot blockers (specifically Hal Gill with 8 and Ryan O'Byrne's 7) who did a better job deflecting shots away.
- The "Big 3" for Montreal (Gionta, Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri) combined for 12 of the 25 shots on goal that the Habs had. For one because they're the best offensive players on their team, for another because the rest of the lines were pinned in their own zone most the night.
- Sidney Crosby: an assist, a tied for game high 5 shots on goal (with Gionta), two takeaways and a 50% night in the circles on 12 draws. He's fighting for room against Gill and Josh Gorges and though he's getting somewhat through, he hasn't been able to finish. Yet. Crosby's playing with an edge and with jump, it's got to be a matter of time.
- Also credit Versus (second time in this recap!) for noting how the Pens have adjusted to rookie sensation Subban. He's a very confident player, a great skater and terrific puck handler. But he sometimes holds the puck too long, use to the level where he can wheel around and make a play. Evgeni Malkin picked his pocket, others intercepted Subban's patented spin-to-pass move. The Pens have done a great job adjusting to his skills, pressuring him and taking advantage. Halak bailed Subban out, but the lesson has been learned.
- Another great stat: the Pens have scored 11 goals this series from 11 different players. Amazing balance there, but it's time for the best players to step it up and break this trend.
- Fleury, for his part, is always a marked man after a Penguins loss. To be sure, MAF should have had Pyatt's goal. But he also saved Alex Goligoski's bacon and Fleury was solid on several other chances, before being a victim of bad luck to see the game winner go off Letang. It wasn't Fleury's best effort, but it wasn't his worst either. Now we get to see how he can bounce back, which if it's like how he has bounced back after previous losses this post-season (3-0, 1.26 GAA, .942 sv%), and he'll have to be that good again.
In the "Race to 4", we're tied at 2. With two more games in Pittsburgh. The Habs have shown the hallmarks: an opportunistic offense, suffocating defense and a great goalie. The Pens have had them on the ropes and carried the gameplay for the majority of time. That doesn't matter though, if it doesn' help you get to 4.
2 more. Two more to four.