Penguins blow chance at series lead
As fast as things had gone right for the Pittsburgh Penguins early in the first period, that’s how fast the wheels came off early in the third.
After not being able to get anything by Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 3, the Montreal Canadiens got the start they wanted in Game 4 when Tom Pyatt fired a bad-angle shot past the Pittsburgh netminder just 2:34 in, on just the Habs’ second shot of the game.
Then the Penguins came on. Less than a minute later, hometown boy Max Talbot raced down the ice on a breakway and flipped a backhand past Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak. Less than two minutes after that, with Pittsburgh on the power play, Sidney Crosby got the puck to Chris Kunitz, who put the Penguins ahead, 2-1.
By the end of the first, the shots were 15-6 in favor of the Penguins. And the second period saw Pittsburgh continuing to pour on the pressure, playing their game, taking the play to the Canadiens in the offensive zone. The Habs were again outshot by a big margin, 11-3, in that frame — for a total of 25-9 after two — but Halak was perfect, and the Penguins clung to the one-goal lead.
Halak’s heroics gave his team the chance to come out with momentum in the third, and the Canadiens pounced on the opportunity. Two minutes into the frame, Maxim Lapierre tied it up, scoring his second of the playoffs on a pretty wraparound. A minute and a half later, Brian Gionta was working along the boards and made an innocent-looking play to center the puck in front of the net, but it found Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang’s skate and deflected past a stunned Fleury.
That fluky goal sent the Bell Centre crowd into a frenzy — and it held up as the game winner. Penguins star Evgeni Malkin had Pittsburgh’s best chance on a breakaway late in the game, but Habs defenseman Josh Gorges scrambled to take away the shooting angle, and Halak came up with the stop.
Just like that, in a 93-second span, the Penguins had gone from having the chance to eliminate the Habs Saturday night in Pittsburgh to facing a long, tough series that was now evened up at two games apiece.
“That’s playoff hockey. You have to deal with momentum shifts and adversity, and this is a tough place to do that in. And they did get that momentum, with the two goals coming close together like that and getting the lead,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said.
“Our bench was talking about trying to execute and get to our game, to get back to playing the way we needed to play, and it was made difficult by the building and by the Canadiens. They kept the pressure on, and we weren’t able to maintain the type of pressure we were able to have early in the game.”
It was the first time in Montreal’s last 18 playoff games that the team rallied for a comeback when trailing going into the third period. It was also just the second home win for the Canadiens in this year’s playoffs. On the flip side, it was the Penguins’ first road loss in the postseason, and the first time they dropped a contest when leading after two.
For Pittsburgh, it was also the third consecutive game in which Crosby had been rendered very quiet. After collecting two power-play assists in Game 1, he picked up no points in Games 2 or 3, one assist in Game 4, and has yet to score in the series. That’s significant, as Montreal blueliners Gorges and Hal Gill, along with a suffocating team defense, are managing to do what even the Ottawa Senators’ shutdown pair of Anton Volchenkov and Chris Phillips could not: silence the Penguins’ captain.
The Habs blocked 23 shots in Game 4, with Gill pacing the way with eight. But Crosby did manage five shots on the night, with a total of seven attempted — a good sign, according to Bylsma.
“Tonight I thought we did a better job in the offensive zone; we got pucks around the goaltender and got some chances,” Bylsma said. “Those are the opportunities I don’t think we did a good job in other games of getting. And I think Sidney’s line and the power play were in the offensive zone, doing the things they need to do to get their chances, and we’ve got to stay focused on that.”
Pittsburgh got some inspiration Thursday night from the unlikely return of forward Jordan Staal, who underwent surgery after Game 1 when a tendon on the upper side of his foot was sliced by a Canadien’s skate. A fierce competitor who never missed a game due to injury prior to this incident, Staal played 13:24 on the night, starting on the fourth line but easing back into time in all situations.
“I thought he didn’t miss a step,” Bylsma said.
The teams now return to Pittsburgh for Game 5, and Montreal’s win Thursday ensures that the series will go at least six games. If the Penguins continue to dominate as they did for the first two periods of Game 4, they’ll have a good opportunity to retake the series lead at home.
But what the Canadiens did in that 93-second span early in the third period provided a good example of just how opportunistic and formidable of an opponent they are. And they’re getting it done as a team, with contributions from everyone.
“With (Andrei) Markov being absent, (Jaroslav) Spacek, those are two individuals who have been on our top four (defense) all year, and other people have really stepped up,” Canadiens head coach Jacques Martin said.
“The leadership of Gill and Gorges, their play against the top line all through the first round and again — I think it really speaks volumes about their character, their dedication, their commitment.”