Eastern Conference Round 2 Preview: Montreal vs. Pittsburgh

When the visiting Canadiens line up against the host Penguins tonight to open round two of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs, the victorious memories of the first round will have faded away for both clubs.  For Pittsburgh, Pascal Dupuis’ series-clinching overtime goal at Ottawa last Saturday was savoured but quickly tempered by the realization that it was only step 1 out of 4.  For Montreal, Wednesday evening’s shocking death-blow to the Washington Capitals was equally cherished but that historic moment has also been relegated to the past already.  The only thing that matters is the present time and the present opponent.  The following is a brief position-by-position preview comparing the two teams.

GOALTENDERS

MONTREAL: Carey Price (reg. season: 41 GP, 13-20-5 / 2.77 / .912; playoffs: 2 GP, 0-1 / 3.98 / .898) and Jaroslav Halak (reg. season: 45 GP, 26-13-5 / 2.40 / .924; playoffs: 6 GP, 4-2 / 2.46 / .939).  If the Conn Smythe Trophy was handed out on a round-by-round basis, Halak would be the unanimous choice.  His sheer dominance against the relentless Washington artillery during the last three games of the first round was off the charts: 134 shots, 131 saves.  He single-handedly stole the series away from the Caps for Montreal.  For the Habs to have a chance against the Penguins, Halak will need to be just as sharp as he was against the Capitals.

PITTSBURGH: Marc-Andre Fleury (reg. season: 67 GP, 37-21-6 / 2.65 / .905; playoffs: 6 GP, 4-2 / 2.75 / .890).  Fleury’s five-goal furball in Game 1 versus Ottawa and his sub-.900 save percentage during the six game series had all his critics braying again.  The Penguins win in spite of him … He plays to the score … Too many soft goals.  Yet like last year, Fleury was able to shake off poor performances and rebound immediately with a strong effort.  In a tense Game 2, he gave up a soft opening goal, then shut down the Sens the rest of the way in a one-goal win.  In the series-deciding game, his save on Chris Neil early in overtime gave Dupuis a chance to be the hero minutes later.

EDGE: MONTREAL

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DEFENCE

MONTREAL
Ryan O’Byrne – Andrei Markov
Josh Gorges - Hal Gill
Roman Hamrlik – P.K. Subban/Marc-Andre Bergeron

Jaroslav Spacek (flu, day-to-day)

In the shadow of Halak’s brick-wall goaltending, the Canadiens’ defence corps must be commended for their unsung hard work at stifling Washington.  Montreal defenders top all playoff squads in blocked shots with 182, led by former Penguin Hal Gill’s 32.  Their constant ability to obstruct shooting lanes frequently frustrated Washington forwards and is a skill that will need to be duplicated to succeed against the Penguins.  Andrei Markov suffered an injury-plagued regular season but is healthy now and anchors the Montreal power play.  Pittsburgh requires nobody to introduce them to the 6’7″ 241 lb. Gill, who played on both Penguins teams that qualified for the last two Cup Finals.  In addition to his propensity to block shots, Gill uses his size to rub out opponents from creating traffic in front of his goaltender.  The Habs’ wild card on defence is highly-touted 20-year old P.K. Subban, recalled from Hamilton of the AHL on Monday for his first career playoff action.  Montreal confidently and immediately dressed the two-time World Junior gold medallist, opting for a seven-man defensive unit in Games 6 and 7.

PITTSBURGH
Sergei Gonchar – Mark Eaton
Brooks Orpik – Kris Letang
Alex Goligoski – Jay McKee

Jordan Leopold (head injury, day-to-day)

Veteran Jay McKee, scratched for the first two games against Ottawa, found himself pressed into action starting in Game 3 due to a crushing hit by Ottawa defenceman Andy Sutton on Jordan Leopold that knocked Leopold out for the rest of round one.  McKee quietly ensured the unplanned transition went smoothly, providing steady defensive work in his own end, recording 10 blocks in just 4 games – the highest block per game ratio of any Penguins’ blueliner in the series.  Leopold has resumed practicing with the Penguins but there is no timetable for his return to game action yet.  Solid Sergei Gonchar was a team high +7 and recorded six points, all assists, against Ottawa, half of them coming on the power play.  Young Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang both saw significant power play time against Ottawa.  Unsurprisingly, Brooks Orpik continues to batter the opposition, intimidating opponents with his hard-hitting game.  Orpik recorded 32 hits against Ottawa, tied for second-most among all skaters in the playoffs.  The ability of Orpik and his teammates to check Montreal’s smaller but speedy forwards off the puck consistently will be a critical factor in this series.

EDGE: EVEN

FORWARDS

MONTREAL
Mike Cammalleri – Tomas Plekanec – Brian Gionta
Travis Moen – Scott Gomez - Andrei Kostitsyn
Tom Pyatt - Dominic Moore – Maxim Lapierre
Benoit Pouliot – Glen Metropolit - Sergei Kostityn/Mathieu Darche

Although Montreal ranked fifth from the bottom in goals scored during the regular season, Cammalleri scored 26 times during the regular season and has quietly popped in 5 already during the playoffs.  Plekanec recorded 4 goals against Washington including the overtime winner in Game 1 on the heels of his mild verbal barb against Caps’ goaltender Jose Theodore that in hindsight, was strangely prophetic.  Gionta and Plekanec both recorded 2 goals and 4 points against the Penguins during regular season games this year.  Plekanec, Cammalleri, Gionta and Gomez were major contributors to the Canadiens finishing second only to Washington in regular season power play efficiency.  Interestingly, the Habs topped every team in road PP% at 28.3%.  Can they capitalize on this anomaly considering road teams held a 29-20 edge in the first round?  On the flip side, Montreal will need to find a way to contain the Pittsburgh power play.  Plekanec, Gionta and Gomez also see significant minutes on the ice during penalty kills and Tom Pyatt is a forward whose role has increased in shorthanded situations.

PITTSBURGH
Chris Kunitz- Sidney Crosby – Bill Guerin
Alexei Ponikarovsky – Evgeni Malkin – Maxime Talbot
Matt Cooke – Jordan Staal – Pascal Dupuis
Mike Rupp - Craig Adams – Chris Conner

Tyler Kennedy (upper body, day-to-day)

Two words could summarize the reasons for Pittsburgh’s success against Ottawa: Sidney Crosby.  Just when the hockey world thinks they have seen the best from #87, Crosby raises his game to another level.  Crosby scored 5 goals and 14 points in the first 5 games of the series to lead all playoff scorers.  During the regular season, Crosby improved his faceoff percentage to a career-best 55.9%.  Against Ottawa, he raised it to 57.5%.  His back-and-forth, behind the net, twisting, turning play to set up Kris Letang’s winner in Game 2, a contest in which he scored the game-tying goal and made a diving clear of the puck at his own goal, truly captured the diversity of Crosby’s total skill set.  Crosby dropped a hat trick on the Canadiens back in October and has scored 11 goals and 25 points in 18 career games against the Habs.  To make matters worse for the Canadiens, Evgeni Malkin is playing his best hockey of the season.  The Russian star scored 4 goals and 4 assists against the Sens, with 3 of those goals coming on the power play.  Furthermore, the Penguins spread out the wealth during the first round in terms of distribution of goals.  Thirteen of 24 goals were scored by non-centres, in contrast to the regular season, where centres, predominantly Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal, accounted for over half of Pittsburgh’s goals.  A balanced attack will be more critical to success as the playoffs proceed as teams inevitably focus their efforts to shut down Crosby, much like Detroit did last year.

EDGE: PITTSBURGH

PenguinsMarch PREDICTION: PITTSBURGH IN SIX

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About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch

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