Game 7: Montreal 5 @ Pittsburgh 2
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart,” wrote the late Bart Giamatti, describing the latent disappointment that ensnares any long-time passionate baseball fan. Giamatti, a former commissioner of Major League Baseball, used these two sentences to lead off an essay detailing his obsession with the Boston Red Sox and how they brought him fleeting drops of joy amidst a bath of sorrow and disappointment.
Last night at 9:40 pm, the 2009-10 Pittsburgh Penguins season came to a sorrowful, disappointing close as the surprising Montreal Canadiens sailed onward to the Eastern Conference Final with their second Game 7 win of the playoffs. Unlike their opening round Game 7 victory when they snuck by Washington 2-1, the Habs convincingly defeated the Penguins 5-2 yesterday, building a shockingly easy 4-0 lead before the game was even half over.
For any follower of the Penguins, never in his or her worst nightmares would Game 7 have unfolded like this. Yet playoff hockey, like baseball, “is designed to break your heart”. Sixteen teams start the marathon in mid-April; only one team makes it to the finish line in early June. Fifteen teams and their fans receive impersonal, cold daggers to the heart along the way.
Ten seconds into the game, captain Sidney Crosby was called for a boarding minor in the offensive zone after he checked Canadiens’ defenceman Josh Gorges near the blue line. Crosby said in the final post-game scrum of the season that he “was stunned” by the call. Twenty-two seconds later, a night of stunning moments escalated into high gear when Brian Gionta tipped in a point shot through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads for a power play goal. At 14:23 of the first period, ex-Penguin Dominic Moore rifled a turning shot past Fleury to make it 2-0 for the visitors.
Early in the second period, there were more stunning developments. The Pens were unable to contain Mike Cammalleri during the first six games and Game 7 proved to be no different. He scored his seventh goal of the series, fittingly the game-winner, at 3:32 after some excellent puck movement by Tomas Plekanec and Jaroslav Spacek. When Andrei Kostityn was sent to the box for roughing, Pittsburgh had a chance to reverse the Canadiens’ momentum with the man advantage. Instead, Travis Moen, a member of the 2007 Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, cruised down left wing with the puck on the penalty kill past Sergei Gonchar, then whipped a wrist shot that beat Fleury on the far side.
Montreal 4, Defending Champs 0.
Stunned, Fleury slumped forward in his crease and so it seemed, all of Pittsburgh’s loyal fans with him. Backup netminder Brent Johnson, who had not played since the last game of the regular season thirty-one days ago, was summoned to replace Fleury as shock waves rippled through Mellon Arena. When Chris Kunitz scored at 8:36 to get the Pens on the board, the old Arena stirred with life as there was still plenty of time left on the clock. Then, Jordan Staal deflected a shot past Jaroslav Halak’s left side with three and a half minutes remaining in the period and the crowd revived and erupted in prolonged cheering.
But alarmingly, the Penguins were unable to cash in further chances. At the conclusion of the second period, Pittsburgh received their fourth power play which carried over into the third period, yet they came up empty. Later, Hal Gill, back in action after missing Game 6, held up Sidney Crosby behind the Canadiens’ net to give the Pens another PP opportunity. Nothing. On the night, Pittsburgh was 0 for 6 with the man advantage. Despite another 39 shots on Halak, the Montreal goaltender was rock-solid again, turning away the frustrated Penguins and stifling any thoughts of a comeback. Countless more shots were knocked down by the Hab defence. Desperate and under pressure, Pittsburgh committed two undisciplined too many men on the ice penalties in the final period of the season and Gionta took advantage by scoring his second power play goal to ice the game with exactly ten minutes left.
When it ended, it was not clear which feeling was more pervasive: the painful dread of realizing that the season was over or that the core group of Penguins such as Crosby, Malkin, Staal, Kunitz, Guerin, Adams, Talbot, Fleury, Dupuis, Cooke, Kennedy, Gonchar, Letang, Eaton and Orpik and coach Bylsma, who were greatly responsible for success one year ago, were now defeated. Maybe it was a feeling of numbness, knowing that all the time and emotion invested over an entire season would go unfulfilled, without the sight of another Cup being raised.
Questions will be asked tomorrow, next week and next month about what went wrong. How could a team so talented and so battle-tested lose out to a clear underdog? Why did Crosby contribute everywhere but on the scoresheet in this series? Why was Fleury so inconsistent during the playoffs relative to last year’s run? Why did the defence look unprepared for Montreal’s speed? Did Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin and Mark Eaton play their last games as Penguins? Will Guerin retire? Why did Alexei Ponikarovsky generally fail to provide scoring?
Definitely those questions deserve discussion but today is a day of grieving. Right now, this loss is a tough one to take. Right now, it is tough to take that there will be no more Penguins’ hockey for the rest of the spring. Right now, it is tough to take that there will be a new Stanley Cup champion in 2010. Right now, it is tough to take that the lights will darken forever inside Mellon Arena. Right now, it is tough to take that the image I will be seeing all summer when I close my eyes is Crosby, despite his best efforts, skating off the ice dejected, heading down the dark tunnel to the locker room in defeat.
This game is designed to break your heart…
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